The charm of Cornelia Street is its size — a side-pocket lane tucked away from stovepipe Sixth Avenue. The restaurants, narrow and deep, are hideaways, from the departed (Pó, Pearl Oyster Bar), to the enduring (Le Gigot), to relative newcomers, like Silver Apricot, the ambitious Chinese restaurant from chef Simone Tong.
This winter, Figure Eight — named for the lucky number in Chinese numerology and a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina — joined Silver Apricot next door. The restaurants share a managing partner, Emmeline Zhao, and, broadly speaking, a foundation in Chinese cooking. But where Silver Apricot is elegant, Figure Eight is brawny. It speaks with a southern accent (Zhao grew up between Shanghai and Chapel Hill) and raids the southern pantry for benne seeds, cornmeal, and red peas. You wouldn’t mistake Calvin Hwang, Figure Eight’s executive chef, for anything but a product of high-caliber kitchens — he has years of fine-dining experience, most recently at Saga and Crown Shy — but his cooking here feels geared more for fun than laurels.
Figure Eight is cozy, in Realtor-ese — a front-room bar and an adjacent dining room, long and straight like a railroad apartment, tight enough that you may find yourself sliding past patrons’ puffer coats hanging on the wall. Small rooms are one thing. Small plates, whose hour of favor comes and goes, are another. Little strikes fear in my heart more than the waiterly injunction that courses are intended to be ordered by the dozen. And there was our server, cheerfully explaining over our bread-size dishes, “Nothing comes on a plate larger than what you’re got in front of you.” Picture me, eyes goggling, raving, “I am big. It’s the plates that got small!”
You could make a meal of nibbles at Figure Eight, scooping Shanghainese smoked-fish salad from a candy dish my grandmother would’ve owned onto nut-brown fried saltines, or combining a flight of tiny lobster rolls with a plate of “turnip tots,” a marriage of Ore-Ida and lo bak go. There’s nothing wrong with any of the miniature stuff — I might’ve liked some more shrimpiness in the tots’ shrimp ketchup — but I had the most fun at Figure Eight by going big on the larger items lurking at the menu’s periphery.
“The Tower,” for $55 a person, includes most all of the restaurant’s raw-bar items on a double-decker ice bath set on a lazy Susan for easy access. You’ll fight with your tablemates to steer the wheel, landing on diced scallop crudo, prettily dressed in frilled shells with green chiles and smoked trout roe; pastry-scented brown-butter lobster tail; or pincers of stone crab. (You will likely, as we did, leave the accompanying dragon fruit to its proper role as garnish, though one of my companions did note it has a slimy chew, “like a mild clam.”)
A group of three or four is the magic number. At that size, you can order both of Hwang’s largest entrées, which come to the table in big blue cast-iron pans, ready for a multi-fork assault. Soy-braised chicken is moist and purple-skinned, gingery and a little smoky from its bath, ready to be shredded into lettuce cups. Charred whole branzino is filleted and flattened like a half-read book. Both come on a crispy bed of Hoppin’ John — takeout fried rice meets the Carolinas — and the fish comes with a ride-along cup of fish-head soup in which a few chewy fish balls are bobbing.
The share-averse can eat well enough on their own. Saucy, pineapple-sour char siu ribs got nods at our table, though we wished they were a bit more crisp. That wasn’t an issue with the hot fried skate wing — Nashville-style seafood — with a crunchy coat dipped into chile crisp and a long spicy tingle of Sichuan peppercorn. Eat it with your hands, then lick the spice off your fingers.
Cornelia Street coziness may incline to date nights and sweet nothings, but there are plenty of places up and down the block for that. The sweetest something I had at Figure Eight was a Hong Kong–style egg waffle, carbuncled with airy polyps and made (in continuing deference to the Sino-southern theme) from Anson Mills cornmeal. We ripped it to shreds. Date food? I don’t know about that. A little party, certainly.