Food for Thought – Cantonese Cooking Comes to Irvington

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Ben Pope, owner and chef of Mr. Koo’s Kitchen photo: Jon Marshall

Mr. Koo’s Kitchen, chef/owner Ben Pope’s exceptional creation, features an homage to his family’s Cantonese roots; his menu is neither traditional nor modern, but a delicate blending of Chinese and Western elements.

Born in Hong Kong, Pope moved to New Caledonia, a French colony, where he experienced a remarkable fusion cuisine: a complex mélange of Asian, French and native dishes. So if the name “Mr. Koo’s” makes you think “Chinese food” – think again. Yes, there is China, but so many other influences and cooking styles contribute to the result that you can only marvel at the sheer inventiveness of it all, and how it all comes together. Growing up close to his grandparents, whose culinary skills inspired and nourished him from his earliest years, he arrived in New York City where he was educated and then began his culinary training at age 30 at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center).

Former executive chef and partner at the award-winning 2 Duck Goose in Gowanus, he and his wife, Erikka Hunter, co-owner of Heart to Hand Healing Center in Tarrytown, decided to make the leap from Brooklyn to Westchester and settled in Tarrytown. Pope opened Mr. Koo’s Kitchen in October, 2017, in the former site of The Cupcake Kitchen and Woolfert’s Roost. He brought with him his love of native Cantonese cuisine, enhanced by his serious culinary training and deft cooking skills, all inspired by his grandfather, the original Mr. Koo.

Seared Crescent Farms Duck Breast with purple sweet potato purée, pickled vegetables (radishes, snow peas, golden beets, kohlrabi) and kumquat chutney. —photo: Ben Pope

Pope’s traditional Cantonese food concept, successfully realized at 2 Duck Goose, has now been transported to the rivertowns, and what a rare treat it is to experience his innovative talents and fresh interpretations. Chinese family-style dining, with small appetizer plates and then larger plates for the table to share (tapas style), creates a community feeling at the table, one of Pope’s goals in creating Mr. Koo’s.

His menu changes weekly and seasonally with fresh clean foods, herbs and micro-greens (courtesy of Blue Moon Acres in New Jersey) giving a delicate hint of complexity to each dish he prepares. With an open kitchen, it’s fun to watch him and his kitchen partner, Scott Campion, prep, assemble, and granish each individual dish for his customers. A favorite – hot and sour soup becomes a complex amalgam of made-to-order tastes: his house-made stock is enhanced with aromatics, smoked tofu, wood ears and mushrooms, then deglazed with Shaoxing cooking wine, soy and black vinegars, a shot of rice wine vinegar and fresh pepper, with a final fresh egg swirled into strands. Topped with frizzled/fried parsnip skins, golden and green pea shoots for added nutrients, it’s divine! And a real tour de force.

Pope keeps 20 different house-made pickles on hand to complement his dishes: pears, plums persimmons, kohlrabi, golden beets, chilies, lotus root, daikon and more to brighten up every menu choice. Brooklyn Brine’s ketchup and his own chutneys: kumquat, persimmon, plum compote (when in season), or tomato jam might also enhance any given dish.

One of his popular signature dishes, succulent grass fed-short ribs, is accompanied by “pico de gallo” purple treviso slaw, gently flavored with minced garlic and lemon juice, and tiny Granny Smith apple dices for an added crunch. Another favorite, his Soy Sauce Chicken, braised and flash-fried chicken thighs, is served in an aromatic soy sauce broth with pickled daikon. As Pope says, “I want to bring that element of sweetness and acidity to the kitchen.”

House Fried Rice (version in picture) fennel stems and fronds, wood ear mushroom, micro red amaranth —photo: Ben Pope

Weekly Fried Dumplings and Char Sui Meatballs, made with Berkshire pork, five spice, apple glaze with beet ginger and apple puree for dipping are also signatures for the table to share. Vegan and gluten free specialties are on hand as well, such as the Twice-cooked Cauliflower, House Fried Rice (mixed mushrooms, spiced tofu, crispy vegetable skins and farm egg), and the Twice-Cooked Sunchoke “Potatoes Bravas” (with pickled celery hearts and red sambal aoili). Pope wants to offer every diner a choice. So, whether customers are diving into the Seared Duck Breast, Chicken with Black Bean Sauce or the Smoked Tofu, Mr. Koo’s provides ample tastes for everyone at the table.

The décor, thanks to Erikka Hunter’s design sense, hearkens back to Pope’s time in New Caledonia along the lagoon where he spent his youth. Palm trees, soft green walls, photos of Pope’s mother and grandparents come together to give a welcoming, soothing atmosphere to the 35 seat restaurant. The informality of an open kitchen is complemented nicely by white tablecloths and Pope’s artisanal wine list. Craft beers are also available.

Authentic Cantonese dining is rare in Westchester, so to have Mr. Koo’s inventive bistro located closeby is a culinary gift. Chef Pope will welcome you with his gracious, youthful smile. He wants you to “….hold on to a menu in case you want to try some other dishes, stay awhile and enjoy yourself.” You will.
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If You Go

100 Main Street, Irvington

Hours: W, Th, Sun: 5:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. F-Sat.: 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.

Catering and private parties available. Call for take-out availability.[/box]

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