It was only a mere 2 years ago that the Chungs and (then) Miss Chang opened their breakout bricks and mortar shop in Soho. That all seems like a lifetime ago now, given their complete runaway success, having amassed this incredible fandom in London and beyond. No longer a humble street food stall, these folk are now swinging in the big leagues, rolling out a total 4 locations: 3 Baos and the latest, Xu.
Before diving into Xu, I suppose I’ll start with a swift and familiar one to Bao Fitz:
Cod Black at Bao Fitz, £5.
You know it baby. It’s bloody delicious this and well-made. Though in 2017, it is smaller than I recall it being, for a fiver, I’m not so sure about the QPR of these things, but I can see why you love it so much. It’s so cute, it tastes good, its kind of familiar and also adventurous.
Thanks to the Chung trio, London now knows a thing or two about Taiwanese cuisine, and it is quite the curious thing; A richly diverse derivative of various regional Chinese (and Japanese) cuisines, due in no small part to the Island’s history with both Mainland China and Japan. The key to Taiwan’s cuisine however is the way it has adapted itself to the local palate. Take the symbol of Taiwanese cuisine, the mighty beef noodle soup for instance; My in-law’s retelling of the original flavours of his national dish – ‘hong sau’ or red braise soup being spicy – is that it is essentially the taste of the Szechuan roots of the nationalists soldiers who had fled to Taiwan in 1940s, when communism took hold in China. So the story goes, of ex-KMT soldiers opening the first beef noodle soup stalls in Kaohsiung, the beginnings of its omnipresence up and down the island today. As with most culinary myths, I don’t know all the blanks (and I’m Nanyang innit), no doubt you too will have a take of how things came to be.
My annual escapades to Taipei are always illuminating, the night markets a kaleidoscope of delights, and the point I want to make is that the concept of Formosa’s cuisine (or any well-traveled Chinese food for that matter, General Tso’s for reference) has always been malleable, bending itself to the local flavour as it were. Much in the same way Bao Soho/Fitz has done for London, whilst at the same time providing a nostalgic tether to its originating cuisine. That narrative, sexy branding, mighty JKS money, a city with a huge appetite for exoticism, unshackled from rigorous classic cuisine and there you have the ripe environment for Taiwanese soft power to extend its reach into Blighty.
With success, the Chungs eye a challenge on grander scales. Whilst Bao is really dressed up street-food for the instagram generation, Xu in my view is the Chungs getting serious with an actual restaurant, for the instagram generation.
I consulted the better half for its full nomenclature, 許儒華苑, roughly translating as Xu’s learned court. Xu Ru Hua Yuan – believe me, it sounds very posh in Mandarin. Of course, it is named after family, Mr Xu being Er Chen’s late grandfather. The interiors are stylistically retro in the WKW ‘In the Mood for Love’ sense, very posh, their success being evident and also I think it says of the more grown-up intentions of Xu as a contrast to the whimsy of Bao. I do like the irony to include mahjong rooms (I can hold my own quite well 3 days 3 nights into most CNYs) in a place that is supposed to have an air of sophistication about it.
I should mention that I did not peruse their tea on this visit, but you really should. I am also of the view that Taiwanese high mountain oolongs are the bee’s knees. The purity, incredible.
If some of what I say here is similar to something I wrote earlier this year, it is because it is and does remind me of the upscaling of some restaurants in Taipei, in particular, Mountain and Sea House 山海樓. The USP being a kind of revival, a rebuild of lost gastronomy that might have been enjoyed by the rich and beautiful in the days of Japanese colonial rule (before WW2 and eventual economic malaise, prior to rising again in the 80s boom, of which this gastro revival somewhat coincides with).
And so to the food.
Numbing Beef Tendon 滷牛筋
Tendon Terrine, Chilli Vinagrette, Coriander, £5.5
Thinly sliced, gelatinous and with a perky vinaigrette that is rather well balanced with just a touch of heat. Pretty good.
Cuttlefish Toast 墨魚多士
Cuttlefish & Prawn, Whipped Cod Roe, £5
Yes, perhaps better than the shrimp toast from my local takeaway, not by much and why so small, for a fiver?
Oyster Congee 芋頭蚵粥
Jersey Rock & Taro, £7
Yup, this is certainly xi fan, and oh yeah it sure is Taiwanese alright. Actually decent with cubes of yam, though the Cantonese side of me continues to find this watery stuff jarring. I need the creamy and gloopy spoonfuls, and fried dough…. yes pretty authentic here. The better half would approve I imagine.
Beef Pancake 牛髓夾餅
Shortrib & Bone Marrow. Pickles, Spring Onion, Potato Crumb & Pancakes, £10
I didn’t expect wraps, instead I had a version of chong you bing (#葱油饼) in mind, though this is good. Slow braised shortrib, marrow, crispy potato crumbs dressed in marrow bone. With pickles and spring onion.
Chilli Egg Drop Crab 蛋花辣蟹
White & Brown Crab meat with Salmon Roe, Egg Drop Sauce, Red Chilli, Fermented Shrimp & Garlic, £16.5
Singapore via Taipei in London, at a guess, and by that only just a little spicy. This I liked.
Char Shui Iberico Pork 叉燒豬頸
Iberico Pork Collar marinated in Char Siu with Leeks & Sesame, £18.5
Good charsiu, by London standards. No doubt a proper marinade i speculate from a base of red bean curd hence the colour. For my taste, I found it a touch too richly seasoned, a little too sweet and it could do with a crispier/thicker crust.
I love iberico, the fat tastes fantastic, and nice to see them use a non prime cut. And it is a tougher cut to work with, a little sinewy and chewy in parts since the fat distribution is so uneven. Perhaps this might benefit from more tenderisation work beforehand (perhaps a brine) prior to hitting the flames.
Lard Onion Rice 豬油拌飯 £3
This was good, if a little overkill with the lard.
Bamboo Chilli Beef Fat Rice 竹葉飯包
Bamboo Wrap, Chi Shiang Rice, Aged Fat, Coriander, £5.5
This was just overkill. Over seasoned, overly spicy, when eaten with any of the main dishes, it sets the palate ablaze. I’m Chinese, so I do proteins with rice, and I think this rice needs to be toned down.
We paid £106.88, lunch for 2 for all food above, 2 gold medal beers and also 2 XO Carabineros (actually the smaller sized tails, as opposed to the monsters at say The Greenhouse).
I like Bao for what it is, well-made street food, slickly designed and rightly has appealed to the masses. It is more akin to say the bubble tea phenomenon and all a bit of fun, rather than blinding seriousness, because serious cuisine is taboo these days. The Han in me rejoices nevertheless at Bao’s success, and I am glad to see any form of Chinese cuisine being celebrated in this town.
Obviously there are similarities but I think some of the appeal of Bao has translated to Xu as trappings. Never mind the teensy weensy portions, starters really are canapes and mains are more like starters. It seems preoccupied with being trendy and the trouble with fashion is that it can go out just as quick.
At the core of it, the food is fine, but it’s hard to see where the gastronomy really is. These are more like extended snapshots, vying for the ultra cool. The plating is all superb, making for beautiful snaps, I found a few things overseasoned here and there, and some others were simply unexciting in the context of a restaurant meal. Maybe this is the limit of their amateur background (rather than as trained chefs I mean) or perhaps it is watered down by design, as opposed to say the obsessiveness of MJ’s sole project. It is a 74 cover restaurant, whilst MJ does less than 25 per service. I do wonder, if I hold Xu next to A.Wong, Hakkasan or even Pearl Liang for that matter, is there comparable depth in The Chungs’ cuisine? Put another way, if this were opened by someone with no clout in the business or able to afford a top notch interior designer, would you be able to tell it apart from the rest of Chinatown?
I think back to the view I held in 2015, and I still believe they should have developed their small eats menu under the Bao banner and churn out more nostalgic Shilin greatest hits. Instead, the group have rolled out and spread thin. Perhaps, a little too thin. Ambition. Capitalism. I tell you what, when you have a proper bowl of niu rou mian in Taipei, it is life-changing. London’s short attention span may yet be distracted with DTF’s impending plans to open here. I hope they bring more than just the XLBs, their porkchops on egg fried rice is another Taipei nostalgia for me.
Still I wish Wai Ting, Shing Tat and Er Chen all the best, for all they’ve achieved it is the ultimate fairy tale. Now that the costs are sunk – and it is early days – Xu may yet blossom in the next Spring.
£40pp (ave) + drinks + service
30 Rupert Street W1D 6DL
Tube: Leicester Square
Tel: +44 20 3319 8147