Places To Eat In London: XU, Chinatown
I don’t think I’ll ever shut up about how amazing the meal I had at Bao in Fitzrovia a couple of years ago was. It is up there as one of the best meals I have ever had. So, when I heard that the Bao team were opening up a slightly different Taiwanese concept (not a bao bun in sight!) on the edge of Chinatown, I added XU to my list and waited in eager anticipation for my usual partner in crime for such ventures had the day off work and was free for lunch so we could go have a few cocktails and eat our weight in dumplings.
XU have some rather unusual cocktails, so it took some time with our friendly waiter (needless to say the service is fantastic at XU, and there are even little pull out draws under the seats for your handbag/ personal effects so the restaurant doesn’t feel cluttered!) I braved it and went for a short gin cocktail made with miso. It seemed less of a leap as I’m used to white miso being used in sweet desserts, and it was well worth the risk; complex, both sweet and savoury. If not, they have a great selection of asian beers on offer.
We started with a plate of numbing beef tendon, sliced in a terrine and served with chilli vinaigrette and finely chopped coriander stalks. It was an interesting dish, but I still can’t decide if I enjoyed it or not. I was relieved that ‘numbing’ did not seem to refer to mouth numbing (and I’m not a person for really spicy foods!) but the beef, while being pleasantly fatty (if you’ve ever enjoyed a slice of lardo you’ll know what I mean!) I don’t think it had much flavour. But then again, I did not, *not* like it. It was really interesting to eat.
Firmly in the ‘yes I really enjoyed this’ column were the rabbit and pork dumplings served in a broth-like sauce of spring herbs. The dumplings were rich, meaty and the pork was given a nice gamey, slightly more unusual edge from the rabbit. The broth worked beautifully with it, really lifting the dish with a grassy freshness. However, this one was an appreciation of the ingredients; if you’re after a more Chinatown-style, Sunday morning dim sum dumpling experience, give these a miss and keep on reading!
The very, very best thing I ate at XU, and what made it a truly memorable meal were the chilled clams, served on a bed of crushed ice to keep them perfectly cold, topped off with a bright basil granita. To summaries, my dining companion was allergic to clams, so I happily demolished a whole dish by myself, and then ordered a second helping. The clams were so beautifully sweet and fresh, and the basil granita just gave them a fresh burst which I think in the hands of a lesser team of chefs would be very, very difficult to execute. Even if you’re just here for the set lunch, do order some of these on the side as you simply can’t miss them.
After a second round of drinks (I got a bit braver and ordered a sparkling pear number made with butter; it was totally unexpected, the butter adding a richness without any fat to it – I have absolutely no idea how they did it!) we moved onto dumplings proper. We got two rounds of the pork dumplings, stuffed with juicy meat and a little soupy broth, served with a bright chilli oil for dipping on the side. Big, juicy flavours. Meat feast.
Followers of some of London’s most prolific restaurant instagrammers will recognise XU’s signature dumplings made in signature little parcels, resting in a pool of bright, jade green kow choi (Chinese chive) oil, and we ordered both sets that were on the menu that day. The Taiwanese sausage ones were good, but the big, big surprise for both of us were the sweet potato dumplings; rich, tender puree encased in a toothsome wrapper. The mouthfeel on these was incredible, and the flavours were on par with the chilled clams I’m now so evangelical about. Another one to order on the side of whatever else you get.
We shared a dessert; the traditional steamed brown sugar sponge cake, served with little dishes of condensed milk and orange buttermilk for dipping pieces in on the side was as charming as it was enjoyable. I’m used to slightly more savoury Asian desserts, so this one was a surprise; something more like an English afternoon tea cake than a Chinatown pudding. If you have a sweet tooth do save room for this, but if you’re more of a savoury person, just order some more clams and another dish of sweet potato dumplings!
Head over to XU if you’re into Asian flavours that intrigue you, and you’re into trying new things. London’s critics were split down the middle when this first opened; some thinking it was groundbreaking, others really unimpressed with their meals. Okay, so it is no Bao, but it is more of a culinary experience that is worth having if you’re curious. And those clams. And those sweet potato dumplings.