Menuwatch: Xu, London
Authentic Taiwanese food is skilfully combined with more familiar flavours at this Soho newcomer, says Neil Gerrard
It takes no more than the floral notes from a cup of bao zhong tea to take Erchen Chang, chef of Bao London and now of Xu on London's Rupert Street, back to her native Taiwan.
The 72-cover Xu has an opulent feel despite its relatively diminutive size, with lustrous dark wood panelling, an emerald tea counter, and a hand-painted mural behind the bar. It's even bookable - a relative rarity in London. But this isn't a simple recreation of a traditional Taiwanese restaurant. It is also informed by the trio's own passions: old movies, the theatre and classic Chinese restaurants, with their particular type of service and presentation.
"Shing and Ting are from Hong Kong and I am from Taiwan and a lot of our food is influenced by Cantonese and some Taiwanese," Chang explains. "So I would say it is familiar to a certain extent, but a lot of it is created by things we have been interested in."
Bar snacks (xiao tsai), like the peanut lotus crisps (with peanut, chilli and wintermelon syrup), £2, offer a clue. "In Taiwan, we use so much peanut," Chang explains. "And wintermelon syrup is something you add to water to make a drink - I would say it is a national drink and everyone loves it. The combination of the two makes it quite Taiwanese, but, again, the dish isn't necessarily Taiwanese."
One dish that certainly was Taiwanese was the chicken feet, which are sadly now off the menu, probably thanks to a review in The Times by Giles Coren, who said they were cold and tough. "I cannot say that Xu did anything wrong with the dish. This may have been a perfectly correct execution and it's just a cultural disconnect that put me off," he explains.
"In dim sum you can also get chicken feet but they are steamed and very soft," Chang explains. "You put it in your mouth and the bone falls off, whereas with the Taiwanese one you have to suck around the feet - they have a kind of chewy texture and it's all about the braising liquor they are cooked in." Coren, incidentally, on a return visit, declared Xu's food "mesmerising", while Marina O'Loughlin, while the restaurant critic for The Guardian, declared it "quite simply, gorgeous".
Other dishes, such as the numbing beef tendon (£5.50), may sound challenging, but have been made accessible. "We slow-cook the tendon, we ballotine it, and then once chilled we slice it thinly so it is quite unexpected in a way, but highly accepted," says Chang.
There are no such concerns when it comes to some of the mains, such as shou pa chicken with drippings, ginger and spring onion, white pepper and chicken skin dip (£18.50), or the char siu Iberico pork with braised cucumber and sesame (£18.50), mixing a Cantonese barbecue dish with top-notch European produce.
Xu also prides itself on its selection of Taiwanese teas, which it sources directly from the country thanks to a pre-existing relationship with a supplier it has been using since the launch of Bao, as well as its whisky. While Xu does serve Japanese whiskies, it also serves the little-known but renowned Taiwanese brand Kavalan, which makes a surprisingly complementary pairing with teas such as bao zhong at the end of a meal. Then there's Taiwan Beer, ubiquitous in its country of origin but much rarer on these shores, with a neutral, light flavour that works well with Xu's heavier dishes.
Opening has been a challenge, according to Chang, but now the restaurant is hitting nearly 100 covers for lunch and 170 for dinner on good days. And now that Xu's identity has been established, she is keen to start introducing bao to the menu, as well as one or two more exotic ingredients from Taiwan.
"The opening has been quite a rollercoaster," Chang says. "A lot of our Bao fans came here and said 'oh my God, I can finally get a space' because we do bookings. We get a lot of media and art people, which I am superexcited about because I love all the people from the galleries coming here. It's really cool."
From the menu
Xiao tsai (bar snacks) and starters
•Chilled clams - chilli marinade, basil oil £5
•Truffle-steamed egg, truffle sauce, spring peas £4.75
•Cuttlefish toast, cuttlefish and prawn, whipped cod roe £5
•Beef pancake, shortrib and bone marrow, pickles, potato crumb and pancakes £10
•Cast-iron black pepper beef - 40-day-aged sirloin with honey, black pepper sauce and fried egg £15
•Chilli egg drop crab - white and brown crab meat with salmon roe, egg drop sauce, red chilli, fermented shrimp and garlic £16.50
•Ma lai cake - steamed brown sugar sponge cake with condensed milk and orange butterscotch £6.50
30 Rupert Street, London W1D 6DL
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