If Wes Anderson were ever to attempt a stylised take on 1930’s Taiwan, I imagine that the result would look something like Xu – the latest restaurant from the trio behind the wildly popular Bao in Soho and Fitzrovia.
Describing itself as a cinematic reinterpretation of Taipei during this decade, the gleaming new restaurant on Chinatown’s Rupert Street is really as fascinating as it gets…
For a start, there’s a dedicated tea kiosk lacquered in emerald green, showcasing an impressive variety of imported teas. Choose from high Jade Mountain, hand-picked Assam or even a cold-brew sparkling Hong Yu tea – and watch as the Tea Master pours the first brew, before letting the drinker step in and control the remaining brews, depending on personal preferences.
The more relaxed nod to a traditional Taiwanese Tea Ceremony is inspired by chef/ co-founder Erchen Chang’s late Grandfather Xu’s love of tea. And yes, the restaurant (pronounced ‘Shu’) is named after him too!
If the tea kiosk is the focal point downstairs, then it’s really all about the marble-topped dinning bar one level up, complemented by an insanely Instagrammable shade of pink. Incidentally you can also opt for a tea and whisky pairing here – a first-of-its-kind experience in London!
There are also Mahjong private dining rooms and a couple of spots thoughtfully allocated for solo diners. I suspect I’ll be plopping myself down at one of these before long, lured back by the restorative muchness proffered by a deceivingly-simple bowl of steamed egg.
The slippery slivers of egg are in fact unfathomably silky, laced with a richly-flavoured truffle oil and sprightly bits of spring peas. It’s all dished up in a heartwarmingly-humble broth, the sort that sends a spurt of comfort tingling through your veins…
The off-menu appearance of the sweet potato Taro dumplings is also quite gratifying, especially if you’ve seen the look of unabashed delight as fellow diners bite into the original (stuffed with Taiwanese Sausage).
Fashioned from tapioca and the root vegetable taro, these dumplings are much lighter than if they’d been made from glutinous rice. Pan-fried and pertly crisp, they parcel a sweet-and-spicy explosion of flavours tempered by a Kow Choi (green chilli) oil dressing.
Actually, each of the vegetarian dishes here – while limited in number – have me hankering for a revisit, from the small starter plate of peanut-crusted lotus chips to the searingly-spicy Mapo tofu. The only veggie main on the menu, it’s served with a layer of silken tofu floating atop the more meaty, pan-fried chunks. My advice would be to order a side of steamed rice to help sop up all the leftover Mapo sauce, which is so intensely singed with green sichuan peppercorns from Yunnan!
Veggie sides emerge a focal point too, featuring crunchy asparagus stems and garlic shoots peppered with broccoli shavings and coriander. A Taiwanese take on mashed potato – involving yam, egg yolk and crispy shallots – is yet another demonstration of the kitchen’s adeptness at clever texturing.
If you’re not a vegetarian and have still managed to read this post up until this point, kudos.
At its heart, Xu is of course predominantly a haven for all ye meat-eaters.
Specialties include street-style eats such as pancakes stuffed with 40-day aged beef shortrib, marrow and pickles…
… And hefty mains, including a “two faced” seabass fillet braced with a sweet red chilli and spicy green chilli. Marinated in fermented beancurd, it arrives skimming the surface of a bone sauce and grilled bone vinegar.
There’s also a classic ‘Shou Pa Chicken’, dished up with its head intact. Not one for the squeamish, diners are ceremoniously handed gloves and encouraged to let rip!
The only low on our visit is the palpable absence of dessert on the menu (something the kitchen is working on fixing soon).
The disappointment is real, this being the same team who brought us the fried horlicks ice cream bao. But short of walking over to Bao for a takeaway of the same, we slip past the colourful edges of Wardour Street nearby to try our luck at Bubblewrap Waffles… barring which we end up with a taiyaki (that’s a fish-shaped) waffle cone, filled with green tea ice cream!
As far as afternoons in Chinatown go, this one’s been quite a caper!
Xu, 30 Rupert Street, London W1D 6DL
For more new & noteworthy openings in London, do have a flick through to my rolling round-up, here