Wednesday 25 October 2017

Xu, Chinatown

Trishna, Gymkhana, Hoppers, Bubbledogs, Kitchen Table, Lyle's, Bao. If at least one of those restaurants isn't in your top 5 in London then you almost certainly haven't eaten at them yet, and in fact I'd go further - there will be a number of committed foodies in the capital whose top five spots are all taken by members of the above list. The JKS group is known not just for the astonishing quality of the places they manage but for the sheer variety, running from smart Indian to Sri Lankan via seasonal fine dining and Taiwanese street food. Everything they turn their hand to is in some way notable, unique and brilliant.

They are, in short, some of the finest restaurateurs the city has ever known. The closest contemporary comparison is Alan Yau, who also instinctively "got" what people wanted from a restaurant and had pockets deep enough to make his visions a reality, but there was always a sense, particularly at lower-end concepts like Busaba Eathai but also at flagship Hakkasan and certainly at latest Soho "Chinese gastropub" Duck and Rice that atmosphere and attitude came first, and food (an often distant) second.

Not so with JKS, and certainly not at Xu, where a gloriously opulent interior, all dark carved woods and plush, intimate booths, is merely the perfect setting for some of the most exciting and inventive Chinese/Taiwanese food to ever hit the capital. I'm intensely aware I'm on very shaky ground talking details, as my knowledge of high-end Taiwanese cuisine is only slightly more developed than my understanding of the rules of American Football, but I know good food when I taste it and this "tomato and smoked eel" was great, the soft cubes of fish sharpened by a commendably punchy tomato/chilli sauce, topped with crisp daikon for extra crunch.

Girolles vermicelli was no less interesting for being the vegetarian option, containing a well-seasoned mound of fresh mushies and nice defined glass noodles. I think there were squares of something else in there too - perhaps egg, although don't quote me on that. Look, I did warn you I wouldn't do very well with the descriptions.

The beef in "Numbing beef tendon" was sliced into neat flat circles, covered in Sichuan peppercorn-spiked chilli oil, and topped with various herbs and finely chopped spring onions. At its heart this was a smartened-up version of the "sliced beef in chilli oil" you may have enjoyed in your favourite Sichuan restaurant, only more subtle, more attractive and that much more rewarding.

Between the starters and mains we snuck in a snack from the main menu, "Xian Bing", pastry puffs containing robustly-flavoured pucks of aged pork and accompanied by a saucer of quite lovely vinegar. One of the highlights of a meal at Bao in the early days was a dressing of aged white soy sauce that came with the beef rump cap, and it's clear their attention to detail to sauces has been carried over to Xu. In fact, the sense of every element of every dish having been lovingly crafted and tested to perfection will be familiar to anyone who's ever eaten at Bao.

The only main that didn't completely knock us over was the seabass, so let's start with that. Though cooked perfectly, and certainly a generous portion, there was something surprisingly one-note and - dare I say it - boring about the dressing, both the inoffensive coriander (presumably) side and the sledgehammer punch of the chilli side, most of which we ended up scraping off. Still, as I say, the fish was good, and was all eaten.

Much better was Mapo Tofu, set in a thick, silky layer and dressed with a rich concoction of herbs, greens and spices. Though onstensibly the "vegetarian option", there was absolutely no sense that this dish compromised anything of the punch and power of the meaty dishes; in fact it made a case for being the best dish overall.

Well, perhaps apart from the beef. Oh lordy, the beef. I have to admit to a twinge of disappointment when this dish was placed on the table, as it looked quite far from the immaculately manicured row of sliced cow I'd been led to expect from press releases, and indeed the art on their own website. But that disappointment lasted no longer than the moment I placed one in my mouth. With a delicate crust from the grill, and a meltingly tender flesh blessed with just the right amount of aged funk, this was a supreme bit of beef cooking, impressive at any price point never mind as part of a £20 pre-theatre menu. Whoever their supplier is (I wouldn't be surprised if it's Warrens who they worked with at Bao), they should be very pleased indeed that their product has been given such a glorious showcase.

Desserts continued the theme of exhausting attention to detail at a seriously reasonable price point. "Ma Lai Cake" is a delicate sponge, steamed to order to a beautiful golden dome, alongside two cute pots of condensed milk and orange-spiked butterscotch. Perhaps these are eaten after every dinner in Taiwan, but I'd not seen one before and was delighted.

And it would be easy to raise your eyebrows at the fact that Xu don't make their own ice cream, until you learn that they get theirs from Gelupo Gelato from just around the corner, who make what most consider the best in the capital. Topped with a dense, salty slick of black sesame, this was a clean, clever and beautiful thing.

So yes, of course I loved it. I loved it the moment I walked through the door, through every carefully-considered, intelligently-constructed dish of fire and flavour, and I loved the bill at the end which at £42 a head with plenty to eat and drink is about as close to a bargain as you're going to find in central London these days. No, not everything was perfect, but even the bits I wouldn't order again were clearly made for the right reasons, and could have easily been someone else's favourites.

Another JKS restaurant, another triumph then. It would almost be possible to take umbrage at these irritating over-achievers, with each new venture better than the last and gathering armfuls of awards and accolades as they go. But for birthdays at Trishna, family meals at Gymkhana, drunken evenings at Bubbledogs and happy long lunches perched at the bar at Bao, I feel I owe these people so much of what I've enjoyed about eating out in London over the last decade, and I have nothing but gratitude for their considerable accomplishments. And now there's Xu, just the latest in a long list of reasons why London is safe in their hands.



Bryn Davies said...

Mapo Tofu the vegetarian option? Doesn't it usually have some minced pork?

Chris Pople said...

Bryn: Ah, you may be right. This wasn't mine so I only had a forkful!

newmiyamoto said...

Great review Chris, and to think you’ve barely made it a third of the way through the menu. The gelato is now from Poco Gelato btw as Gelupo have closed their wholesale business.

SteveF said...

Most Sichuanese restaurants will take the pork mince out of a mapo tofu (and other dishes with small amounts of ground pork like dry fried green beans) if you ask. Might not be strictly vegetarian though as the base could still use chicken stock.