A few weeks ago, I finally made it to a restaurant that’s been on my wish-list since it opened last year, Xu Taiwanese Tea House and Restaurant. From the team behind ever-popular Bao, Xu is a completely different affair offering restaurant, traditional tea house and mahjong parlour (with two game rooms available).
Well located in China Town, just south of Soho, the interior is reminiscent of early 20th century luxury with a touch of 21st, and I really like the wood panelling, plush seating and pastel mint colourway. Similarly, the food menu offers classic Taiwanese and Cantonese food with some clever modern tweaks and twists.
Arriving early on a weekday evening, we are offered Xu’s pre theatre menu, a great deal at just £19.50 per person for two people minimum, it must be ordered by the whole table. The menu is presented on a small card with the whimsical title, ‘The Importance of Shou Pa Chicken‘, that being the restaurant’s signature dish, and the central dish of the set menu. The menu starts with cuttlefish toast, xian bing, sweet and sour aubergine, and then the shou pa chicken is served with lardo lard rice and kale and lap yuk salad.
As befits a tea house, Xu offers an impressive menu of teas. As a very big fan of Taiwanese mountain oolong teas, I plan to go back soon for an afternoon of tea drinking!
The Xian bing (dumplings) are described as 28 day aged Middlewhite pork. They are juicy and tender, with just the right texture in the fried dough and a burst of liquid that does it’s best to escape!
Cuttlefish toast are a play on the ubiquitous prawn toast in old school Chinese restaurants. Striking in appearance they are more subtle in flavour, and lovely with the whipped cod roe condiment.
The Sweet & Sour Balsamic Aubergine are delicious – sticks of aubergine battered and deep fried and tossed in a sticky sauce redolent with the richness of balsamic.
Just because we are curious to try them, we add an order of Taiwanese sausage taro dumplings (£8) with kaw choi oil to the set menu offering. These have a bouncy chew and a slight sweetness which is offset nicely by the Chinese chive oil.
Finally, Xu’s famous shou pa chicken! Traditionally served whole with its head still attached, Xu have adapted it to serve ready portioned boneless pieces of breast and thigh. In a bowl with marinated and charcoal-roasted chicken are a richly flavoured broth of cooking liquid, aged white soy and chicken dripping, a generous dollop of ginger and spring onion, and I think crumbled crispy chicken skin! We are firmly instructed to make sure we toss the whole lot thoroughly to mix it all together before eating.
This dish may not be pretty but oh my goodness, it’s utterly wonderful! The chicken is so tender and moist, the flavours are intense and so delicious that even when I’m totally full, I can’t stop going back to have one more piece, and then another and maybe just one more…
Do not visit Xu without ordering this dish!
I can’t pretend to be too excited about the kale and lap yuk salad, since I’m not a huge fan of kale but actually this salad is pretty good! The lap yuk (cured pork belly; essentially Chinese bacon) is slippery soft and gently smoky in flavour, and I find that I rather like crisp-fried kale, radish and fried onions.
Another revelation is the unassuming lardo lard rice. What’s hard to see in the photo (and even with the naked eye) are generous ribbons of lardo, an Italian cured salumi made from strips of fatback. This, with the fried shallots and short-grain rice, is delightful!
The set menu doesn’t include dessert so we take a look at the dessert menu, but aren’t drawn to any of the choices. Instead, we notice Taiwanese pineapple cake (£4 each) on the afternoon tea menu and ask whether we might have those instead. Staff kindly oblige, and we end our meal with these delicious sweets of crumbly pastry around a pineapple jam filling.
With limited drinks and service, the pre theatre menu comes in at under £30 a head, or a little over with our addition of the sausage dumplings and pineapple cakes. This is great value for the quality of food, and the innovative tweaks of traditional dishes and ingredients.