At Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown’s oldest dim sum restaurant, your waiter will speak questionable English. He may have stronger command of the language than he lets on, but inside Wilson Tang’s classic Doyers Street dinette, it’s best to keep things simple; you order what’s on the menu; they bring it to you. The brash “have it our way” service comforts and charms.
Tang’s new venture, Fung Tu, is more mannered. Opened in November with partners John Wells (Mas Farmhouse), chef Jonathan Wu (Per Se), and general manager-sommelier Jason Wagner (L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon), the restaurant shares a block with white-walled galleries, laundromats, and Chinese sundry shops; this stretch of Orchard Street, just above Canal, is fast becoming swanky. Inside its finely papered walls, Fung Tu is serving genteel, if sometimes cerebral, Chinese-New American food to diners seeking adventure.
On its website, the restaurant describes its cuisine as a “creative and personal style of Chinese-American food . . . complemented by a terroir-driven beverage program.” Wagner stocks light, drinkable Old World and California wines, which he says enhance the food, while avoiding Chinese tipples, which tend to fall below his standard. Above all, there is concern for quality.
So the restaurant offers virtues aplenty, and service is perhaps the strongest of them. Hospitality is casual without overstepping; Wagner’s years in fine dining schooled him in the rules of highest service, and here, he and his waiters can relax and relate to their diners while remembering to crumb the table between courses and re-folding (but not replacing) your napkin for you. They listen with ears trained on turning a good experience into a great one.
But the front of the house needs more help from the back: Fung Tu lacks fire in the kitchen. Wu’s food is interesting but not beguiling, and many dishes taste good while lacking that something extra that seduces.
His “Chinese sashimi” ($14), thin-sliced, undressed striped bass, looks elegant on the plate with whorls of grassy snow pea leaves, but, lacking acid — citrus, pickle, whatever — the dish reads bland and flat. And “dumpling knot” noodles, dressed in a porky Sichuan sauce ($19), come with a warning: “This is one of our spiciest dishes,” our waiter says as we order it. But instead of setting my mouth aflame in dan-dan spice, the dish recalls the American chop suey of my youth; it’s comforting and crave-worthy, but it needn’t be mere child’s food. My adult palate wants more. There are miles of post-Asian-Invasion inroads to explore, and New York could use another thoughtful look at the intersection of Chinese and American cuisines.
Thankfully, some of Wu’s dishes offer a sidelong glance into uncharted territory. Smoked dates ($7), stuffed with duck and buttermilk-battered and fried to a flaky, amber crisp, are worlds unto themselves, the bird’s flesh blending with fruit into a salty-sweet, singular mass. Likewise, roasted beets ($12), with garlic chive chiffonade and dried tofu chips, are an earthy delight.
Then, a pair of fried pork chops ($24), dredged in fragrant, barely there breading, tantalizes the tongue; served naked on the plate with tangy, sweet-and-sour pickled cabbage, it’s a beautiful, orchestrated entrée. And a bowl of sweet potato rice cakes ($23) with briny sautéed kale, lap cheong (a sweet dry sausage), and cashews was equally enchanting.
One of Wu’s more unusual dishes is a heady bowl of silken fish tofu ($12) topped with shredded seaweed and powdered beef. It’s a smooth, umami-rich oddity, but I wonder about its real-life application: Would someone eat a bowl of this stuff at home? I spoon bite after bite into my mouth, trying to figure that out; I never arrive at an answer, but the bowl is suddenly empty.
The much-discussed stir-fried celtuce ($13) is similarly strange. Here, a soft-boiled egg nests in honeydew-green vegetable (celtuce, a lettuce grown for its stalk, rather than leaf), which is cut into thin strips and stir-fried in popcorn purée. But celtuce, like lettuce, lacks flavor, and the egg, subtly marinated and soft-yolked, can’t carry the dish to fruition. Again, I want more acid, more fishiness, more spice, more something.
But desserts are small and nice. On a recent night, balls of chocolate peanut-butter ganache ($6), rolled in sesame and paired with sweet Brachetto at Wagner’s recommendation, match like peanut butter and jelly, revealing Fung Tu at its best: fun, unexpected, whimsical, and exciting.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 5, 2014