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“Imagine the worst possible face,” said Judy Ni, describing the expression her parents, immigrants from Taiwan who came to the US for grad school in the ‘70s, wore when she told them she wanted to open a restaurant. “My dad has a PhD in chemical engineering, my mom has master’s degrees in food science and computer science. They were hoping I would continue with that kind of work.”
But Ni had fallen hard for restaurants. While working in consulting in an unrelated industry, she was volunteering in kitchens at night, including a sabotage apprenticeship set up by her mom with a family friend, Uncle Moy, who owned three Chinese-American restaurants in the North Jersey area. Per Ni, her mom told Uncle Moy, “Make sure she really hates it.” But “at the end of the day, I was like, ‘This is awesome!’”
Many years later, after working at the storied Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley and running the front of the house at the Farm and Fisherman, Ni, 39, finally owns her own restaurant.
Baology, a fast-casual Taiwanese spot on JFK Boulevard, tucked into the ground floor terrace of the Sterling Apartment Homes, opened in June. Ni’s husband, Andy Tessier, most recently helming the kitchen of Bella Vista’s defunct Coeur, is chef and co-owner, and former Farm and the Fisherman co-worker Julia Kling is also a partner.
The menu is divided into three main sections of Taiwanese street food: potstickers, gwa baos (literally, “cut buns”) and ruen bings, which are like stir-fries swaddled in translucent, wheat-wrapper sleeping bags. You order on touch-screen tablets, Honeygrow-style, grab a seat in the small Ikea-blonde dining room, and wait for Kling and her smiley staff in the open kitchen to call your name.
Due to space restrictions, Baology outsources the potsticker dough, buns (“same ones Momofuku uses”) and wrappers, but lavish extra attention on what’s inside them. One of the potstickers is filled with head-on California shrimp and Berkshire pork, for example. Tessier could easily — and more cheaply — buy frozen slave-labor crustaceans and ground commodity pork, instead of peeling and grinding each protein in house, but that wouldn’t jive with the sustainable principles the couple cultivated at Stone Barns and Farm and the Fisherman.
And at home. Ni’s mom, who used to sneak spinach into her dumplings to get her daughters to eat more vegetables, “wants people to understand what they see in American Chinese restaurants is not the way we do things. The belief in Taiwan is your health is linked directly to your diet, and food can be used to help correct the chi, or imbalances, in your body — food literally as medicine.”
Lancaster chickens also arrive whole. Their thighs are portioned, twice-coated in potato starch, twice-fried into peerlessly crunchy nuggets and tucked into plush buns with lemon aioli and Thai basil in the Taiwanese Fried Chicken bun. The rest of the bird gets ground for a potsticker filling enriched with house-made stock and greened with garlic chives. The dumplings are steamed, seared, then steamed again and have bottoms so golden-brown they look like tiny grilled cheeses.
I would tweak some details. The soy-based potsticker dipping sauce is aggressively salty, which might be OK if it was flavoring under-seasoned dumplings instead of Baology’s exactingly seasoned ones. The pickled mustard greens on the meaty, hoisin-licked oyster mushroom bun were stringy distractions. I swapped them out for pickled carrots and daikons from the separate side order of crunchy rice wine vinegar pickles. A tighter wrapping of my ruen bing would have better secured the crunchy bits of marinated and flash-fried short rib and sautéed savoy cabbage, shiitakes and garlic chives.
For Ni, Baology’s raison d’etre is not only providing delicious food, but also doing right by Taiwanese culture, per mom’s mandate. “Everyday, she calls me: ‘Is the restaurant clean? Are you serving good food?’” Ni recounted. “She says, ‘There are so few of us — Taiwanese people — you are representing a lot of the culture and you have to do this well.’”
So far, Ni and her crew are handling the pressure like champs.
2 Quakers – Very Good*
@baology / @getbaod / baology
1829 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, no phone
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday
Founder and Managing Partner: Judy Ni
Culinary Director: Andy Tessier
Director of Operations: Julia Kling
Owners: Judy Ni, Andy Tessier, Julia Kling
Team Members: Ali Hitchcoff, Shelley Aragoncillo, Selena Natal, Mike Worhach, Kamau ‘Chief’ Hayes