Fung Tu, Review: New York-Style Chinese Food With Soul and Smarts
Sometimes eating out in New York can blur together into a montage of hazy sameness—a bit of meat and vegetables cooked over a wood-fired grill for dinner, a bowl of grains, and a headache for breakfast. Repeat. It’s not all bad, but it does get to be a bit boring, doesn’t it?
Fung Tu is never boring. Fung Tu is a year and a half old Chinese-American restaurant on Orchard Street with style and warmth in equal doses, and right now is a very good time to go.
Jonathan Wu is the chef. Since he opened the small, sleek dining room with partners Jason Wagner, John Wells, and Wilson Tang, he’s been incrementally improving his dishes, refining his approach, and turning up all the muffled eccentricities that made the restaurant wobble in its early days. Now, to be precise, he is killing it.
Last week, during Passover, Wu ran a special of meltingly soft potato gnocchi. The dumplings were tender and weightless under a Sichuan pepper-spiked tomato sauce thick with herring from Russ & Daughters, a smoked fish purveyor on the Lower East Side that's over a century old. If you ordered it, you weren’t just indulging in a delicious and technically proficient gnocchi, you were shoveling one of those only-in-New-York moments directly into your mouth, with chopsticks.
Wu, who is 36, was born in the Bronx and raised in suburban Connecticut. He’s a brainy, experimental, energetic cook with a fondness for puns. See: China-quiles, a softly set egg custard with extremely spicy ground pork and crunchy yucca root chips, a fine show that’s a little bit Mexican chilaquiles and a lot Chinese mapo tofu.
The chef has a sense of humor, but his hybridizations are complex, built with thought and finesse. He isn’t in the business of Frankenstein-ing familiar dishes just to grab your attention, or make a headline. Wu got the idea for that gnocchi dressed in a Sichuan herring ragu after obsessing over a dish of potatoes and herring cooked in a skillet, which he read about in The House That Herring Built, then stitched together the elements in a way that makes perfect sense in his kitchen—and more important, in your mouth.
Some chefs are sprinkled with the pixie dust of fame. They travel and socialize and lecture at conferences, and their every move is documented and analyzed across multiple mediums. Wu is alive on social media, sure, uploading photos to Instagram of his herring haul. But he’s not one of the chosen few—he’s not famous. Still, the restaurant is often bustling, and when you dig into some of his more seductive dishes, it's easy to see why.
The most tempting comparison to make is with Danny Bowien, the Korean-born chef raised in Oklahoma with a knack for big, Sichuan-inspired flavors, whose fun restaurant Mission Chinese Food is just down the street—and so hot right now. But the two restaurants are quite different. The new incarnation of Mission Chinese is an ostentatious, caviar-slinging flavor party, loud in theme and delivery, while Fung Tu is quieter and more serious (with a seriously good drinks program to match, run by Wagner).
Like other ambitious restaurants on the borders, outside New York’s dominant French, Italian, and Anglo-American genres of expensive casual, Fung Tu faces a major obstacle: How to convince diners to pay the same kind of prices for Chinese egg noodles as they do for linguine? The question has many complicated layers, but Wu’s cooking goes a long way to providing an answer. Working with high quality ingredients, he applies a lot of technique to transform, say, fava beans, those spring darlings of the small plate, into something that belongs to him.
The fava bean curd is like a cool layer cake from a savory patisserie, with a vein of pickled mustard greens running through. On top, there’s radish and scallion and nubs of pork belly. The satisfying starchiness is reminiscent of a French panisse, made from chickpeas, but it’s as elegant as a slice of fresh dressed tofu.
Wu’s reference points go low, too, which can be delightful. His fried sweetbreads, which come in a kind of sweet and sour sauce with minuscule florets of pickled cauliflower and hot chilies, have a satisfying smack of vinegar and sugar, just like anonymous Chinese take-out, eaten out of the box. The main difference being, this tastes significantly better, sharper, and brighter. His fat, chewy egg noodles with strips of Chinese sausage have the same effect, laced through with clams that have been steamed open in amontillado sherry, as well as a mash of ginger-y scallions and garlic heightened with fermented soy beans. It’s an excellent dish, flat-out delicious.
A recent addition of kohlrabi, glass noodles, and anchovies was fresh and alive, the kind of stand-up, satisfying salad that gives salads everywhere a good name. And if you can admit to yourself that all you really want to do with nduja is eat it with a spoon, like a jar of savory, spicy, porky Nutella, you’ll dig the rainbow-colored shrimp chips with Sichuan-accented nduja. Nibble it with a glass of vin jaune and you’ll find very little to complain about. It's weird, but it also makes you realize the hyphenate Chinese-American is totally insufficient when it comes to describing this rare, intelligent, modern American restaurant.
When he opened Fung Tu, Wu had fine dining experience all over the world, including Spain, France, and Italy (that's where he learned to make that gnocchi) and the kitchen at Per Se. But he’d never cooked this brand of Chinese-American food, his food, which took some time to work out. Now, Fung Tu is a young restaurant in its prime, more sure of its point of view, and more of a pleasure to visit. Though there are misfires—the odd dish that just won't do it for you, a little awkwardness in the friendly service—when Wu is on his game and Wagner is refilling your wine glass, it can be a fantastic place for dinner.
Fung Tu's style has evolved, but the kitchen knows when to hold back. A recent dessert involved a single, gigantic, hot pink scoop of creamy rhubarb sorbet. It was excellent, tangy, and lush, buzzing with a little orange mala oil (mouth warming, lip-tingling stuff infused with Sichuan peppercorns). One bite, and you know what the beginning of spring tastes like in New York, right here where the Lower East Side meets Chinatown.
Fung Tu is at 22 Orchard Street (Lower East Side); +1 (212) 219-8785 or fungtu.com
Rating: 2/4 Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: Smoked oysters in scallion oil ($8); Cured Spanish mackerel ($14); Fava bean curd terrine ($13); Egg noodles with Chinese sausage ($23); Potato gnocchi with herring ($14); Whole steamed fish ($32); Rhubarb sorbet with mala oil ($3)
Who’s Next to You: Young neighborhood families out for a special dinner; twentysomething and thirtysomething couples on date night; a group of finance bros in shiny suits; and food editors with good taste, avoiding the scene.
Need to Know: There’s a $60 six-course, tasting menu if you aren’t in the mood to make decisions, with exciting wine pairings for an additional $30. Jason Wagner’s drink menu involves some really surprising, delicious by-the-glass options, too, and these pair well with Wu’s cooking, including several sherries, vin jaune, and sake.