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Day One: Danny Bowien's Mission Cantina

By Kelly Dobkin
November 21, 2013

Rock star Chinese food wizard Danny Bowien's newest project, Mission Cantina, officially opened last night in the former Noodle Bar space on the LES, just up the street from his currently shuttered outpost of Mission Chinese. We got an early taste of the food and a peek at the space at a friends-and-family night last week, and have been holding our breath until the joint officially opened its doors. Can the country's hippest chef pull off an entirely new cuisine? See what he's cooked up below.

The Digs: The long, rectangular space hasn't changed much seating-wise from its days as Noodle Bar, but now multi-colored Mexican paper cut-outs decorate the ceilings, along with blue and red-hued lights. A giant velvet curtain cloaks the front door and, upon entering, a bizarre tchotchke with a mystical landscape/waterfall greets you on the ledge leading down to the Friends-themed bathroom. The kitchen is visible from the seating area, so you can check out Danny's latest hairstyle while you eat.

The Food: Pulling off adventurous Mexican food in NYC is a tough business. Most chefs that try to do fusion-y takes on it end up changing the menu to crowd-please at some point in the game (Empellon's Alex Stupak had to start offering tacos at his Cocina location, case in point). The food here straddles the line between straight-up Mexican and Mexican hybrid dishes. While traditionally Mexican offerings like tacos al pastor and guacamole and chicharrones abound on the menu, there's also a subtle mixing in of Asian flavors and other influences. The soft scrambled eggs dish is particularly unusual - served with sea urchin, jalapeño pickles and chicharrón - this starter is a bold mix of Asian and Mexican flavors accenting the fluffy eggs that make up the majority of the dish. Another starter, the Hokkaido scallop with beef-heart ceviche, spiked with capers, olives and citrus, is not a far cry from the traditional ceviche flavors in execution, although some of the ingredients are not quite as de rigueur. Format-wise, the menu is broken up into starters, meat tacos, non-meat tacos, sides and a few larger plates like a whole roasted chicken stuffed with rice and chorizo.

The Scene: Danny's dad and pastry chef/close friend Christina Tosi were in the house, as well as a mix of other friends and family. All enjoyed towering plates of chicharrón while a mix of Latin music played in the background.

The Drinks: The short cocktail list plays again on the Asian/Mexican fusion angle, offering drinks like the Lil' Luche (soju, pineapple, yuzu, calpico and spice) and the Como La Flor (named for a Selena song), which mixes soju with cantaloupe, orange, mint and Prosecco.

The Verdict: We're sure this place will be a hit given its location and cachet factor, and we're curious to see how the NY crowds take to the somewhat experimental menu. Since Bowien offers up just enough Mexican classics to keep the masses happy, we're hoping he won't have to tone down the more experimental dishes in the coming months.

172 Orchard St.; 212-254-2233

  • Hokkaido scallop and beef heart ceviche with capers, olives and citrus

  • Fresh queso Oaxaca, hickory smoked with olio nuovo and marinated poblano peppers

  • Soft scrambled eggs with sea urchin, jalapeño pickles and chicharrón

  • Pretty ceilings with paper cut-outs

  • Cebollitas, aka an array of onions

  • I'll be there for you...

    The Friends-themed bathroom has music playing (often from the soundtrack) and pictures of a cut-out dog and NYC skyline.

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