With love from me to XU
Transported to a Taiwanese paradise in Soho
One of the many great moments in Muriel’s Wedding, the darker-than-it-seems 1994 Australian comedy, features Toni Collette as Muriel being kicked out of a gang of suburban mean girls. The only show of compassion before Muriel is cast into friendless singledom is that they let her finish her orgasm first. The drink, that is. Equal parts Kahlua, Baileys and Amaretto, if I remember rightly from a particularly dismal university vacation spent tending bar at a deservedly defunct establishment named Toad Hall on the King’s Road. If you add a shot of vodka it become a Multiple Screaming Orgasm. I have no idea whether nowadays young women are expected to prepare drinks called Sex on the Beach or Long Slow Comfortable Screw, but cocktails, with their connotations of hen-nights, units of TGI Friday’s in bleak industrial parks and the travesty of feminism that was Sex and the City have never signalled anything but desperation to me. I’ll make an exception for a properly-prepared whisky sour or a silver bullet at Dukes Hotel, but otherwise as far as I’m concerned, they’re girls’ drinks, the original alcopop, whose only purpose is to help the poison slip down; a baby step up from pouring Coke into claret. With cocktails, you should either go big or go home — shake up a Stinger with bromide à la Evelyn Waugh or try Toulouse-Lautrec’s patent concoction “Death on the Stairs” — which at least were honest about their objectives.
The cocktails at XU in Rupert Street are named after rivers in Taiwan, which didn’t strike me as a reason to go there. Where there are cocktails a theme is never far behind, and in XU’s case said theme is “a cinematic interpretation of 1930s’ Taipei”. The bit without the Japanese occupation, one assumes. Actually, the room is lovely, sleek dark woods, pastel leather, high ceilings and spare Art Deco lines. The fans spinning lazily on the ceiling felt functional rather than merely decorative during London’s summer heatwave, and from the first-floor dining room (there are also two private mah-jong rooms), the haze shimmering over the squeals of Soho did make it feel as though we had been transported to Asia. XU is the grown-up offering from the brilliant trio behind Bao, siblings Wai Ting Chung and Shing Tat Chung, and the latter’s wife Erchen Chung.
Mrs Chung’s grandfather, Xu Pong Fei, “a poet, news reporter and lover of fine teas”, is the inspiration behind the luxury-teahouse feel of XU, which is charming, though the newsprint menus, an homage to his career in journalism, feel a bit hokey in what is otherwise a spectacularly refined and cultivated restaurant.
Bao, which specialises in Taiwanese buns, began as a takeaway in a car park in Hackney before opening a perennially packed second joint in Lexington Street. The buns are created from a flour and water “tangzhou” starter which is heated and then left for three days before yeast and sugar is added, giving a dough with a springy yet sticky quality which Taiwanese chefs describe as “QQ”, a highly particular textural sensation much sought after in Taiwanese cuisine.
It’s there in XU’s mianshi, wheat-based small snacks, which include fat pancakes of xian bing pork, minced and bubbling with volcanic and addictive chive and ginger juice. Pork was a bit of a star of the dinner, with bakkwa (Taiwanese jerky) served in glistening lozenges with a raspy pepper relish, and one of XU’s signature mains, a twist on classic Chinatown char siu re-created with Ibérico meat, hoisin and soy, the rich gummy flesh contrasting perfectly with the clean simplicity of fresh cucumber and sesame.
XU’s best-known dish is Shou Pa chicken, cooked in white soy and ginger, with crisp flakes of chicken skin offsetting the smooth poached flesh. The authentic incarnation of the dish apparently involves serving the bird whole, head included, for diners to tear apart with their hands, but this was a bit too Lord of the Flies for London, so it comes in a polite bowl. The Shou Pa is reckoned to be XU’s star and it was certainly delicious, but for my money the Ibérico was more interesting, more earthy and complex, with a more subtle layering of flavours. Taiwanese food bears many similarities to that of the middle provinces of China, but Japanese influence is also notable, not least in desserts, which include moulded delicacies of bean paste, beautifully shaded through pink to cream, like the petals of a peony. “QQ” was rather too much gummily in evidence, and “moon cakes”, which hover confusingly to Western palates somewhere between savoury and tooth-wincingly sweet, are an acquired taste, better enjoyed with fine tea than after dinner, but they look enchanting.
My two girlfriends worked their way, increasingly raucously, through thecocktail menu, but I confess I stuck to white wine. I was intrigued, however, by the possibility of pairing whisky with tea, a combination which makes surprising yet absolute sense. There’s no faux-loucheness about XU, both food and environment are cliché-free, but I bet it would be an excellent place to tie one on if my mates stopped speaking to me.
XU’s confidence, delicacy and ability to lead customers gently towards unexplored tastes and textures is a signal that other establishments in the neighbourhood really need to up their game, both in terms of service and offering.Chinatown is so often an afterthought on a night out, rather than a deservedly exciting destination in its own right. Hopefully XU, which has now been open for a year, will continue to enjoy the success it deserves rather than being dragged down by its lazier surroundings. At present, it is an absolute delight.