The highly valued deciduous tree known as toona sinensis is commonly found in parts of China, North Korea, and at least one backyard in Yonkers. The thin branches are burned as incense in Buddhist temples for its pungent aroma. The bark, when distilled into a medicinal decoction, is purported to fight chronic dysentery, male infertility, gonorrhea, and flatulence. But most prized of all are the tree’s purple, oblong leaves. They harken the arrival of spring in China in the same way that ramps do for certain segments of the American population. The tender toon leaf, or xiangchun as it's called in Mandarin, contains an essence of garlic so ethereal that the wannabe allium is safe to consume before intimate encounters. So if you’re reading this in May, you're in luck: It’s toon season.
As luck would have it, that backyard in Yonkers belongs to the family of chef Jonathan Wu. The Bronx-born Per Se alum harvests the toon leaves himself and serves them at Fung Tu, his envelope-pushing year-and-a-half-old restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Chinese cooks traditionally stir fry the leaves with eggs. Wu, in a nod to that preparation, uses them to garnish airy ile flottantes scented with smoked fish broth; the delicate sting of the leaves acts as an antidote to the umami-rich fumet. It’s a lot of flavor for a dish that sits on the tongue with as much heaviness as a spray of cologne.
Not enough toon? Not a problem. Hundreds of toon drawings cover the restaurant in the form of crimson red wallpaper. And hand-blown glass lights, designed by Jane D'Arensbourg, Wu's wife, evoke the shape of the acclaimed edible. That's commitment. As the rest of New York worships at the altar of fiddleheads before forgetting about them come July, this Orchard Street spot remains a perennial shrine to a single spring leaf.
Fung Tu serves as proof that a new restaurant sometimes needs a year or longer to more fully realize its ambitions
Things are looking up for Fung Tu, which, like Uncle Boons, serves as proof that a new restaurant sometimes needs a year or longer to more fully realize its ambitions — I wasn’t impressed by Wu's deep fried pork chops (or much else) in late 2013, and my colleague Robert Sietsema published a few strong words himself. But the good news is that Fung Tu has since evolved into one of the city’s most compelling destinations for Chinese-American cooking, boasting cleaner flavors and spicier food than in its early days. The venue has also upped its game with a serious, sherry-spiked beverage list and a $65, seven-course tasting, the first serving of which is that epic toon dish.
Soon after comes a course of century egg and whey-poached celtuce — stem lettuce doing its best impression of cool watermelon rind. If there was a vegetarian version of dry-aged beef, it would taste like this masterpiece.
Wu’s efforts provide hope that the creative and pricey side of New York’s Chinese restaurant scene is finally starting to pick up some legit momentum. In the 1970s and 1980s, white linen destinations like Shun Lee Palace and Mr. Chow showed that New Yorkers were willing to pay top dollar for fancy Chinese fare long before they were willing to do so for high-end Mexican. Thing is, the second coming of expensive North Asian eating would founder at the turn of the century. Toronto import Shang, which this critic derided for its $16 cole slaw, didn’t last long in the mid-aughts; neither did Wakiya, and Hakkasan, the exorbitant Cantonese behemoth, has few local supporters in the critical community despite its Michelin star.
It wasn’t until last year's relaunch of Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food that expensive Chinese fare started to perk up our ears again, only this time it would be tailored for our haute-casual, walk-ins-only era. Bowien's dressed-down, downtown hangout, tipping its hat more to a casual French brasserie than to a fine dining restaurant, immediately attracted throngs of fans willing to pay $100 for certain She-Ra-sized main courses and $69 - $99 for belly-stuffing tasting menus that emphasize salty, spicy, not-quite-primed-for-Instagram dishes.
Fung Tu, a reasonably quiet, 55-seat room, is definitely not MCF; the latter can feel like a hustling, bustling, caviar-studded, hip-hop record after party at times. And while Bowien takes a more ambitiously rustic approach to American Express-worthy Chinese-American fare, with dots of refinement here and there, Wu’s path to the gastronomic truth is often more elegant – though he's not afraid to get lowbrow when necessary.
The fourth course on Fung Tu's tasting menu is a Wrestlemania-esque pile-on of ramps, fiddlehead ferns, black garlic, mushrooms, and nettle puree. Flavors of pine, earth, and awesomeness explode as if they were spiked with MSG.
Such elegance also comes into full force with the a la carte fava bean curd, a dish of such complexity it took Wu 518 words to describe its preparation and significance in an email. Allow me to present the simplified explanation: Wu blends the legume with kuzu starch and the end product tastes like what would happen if hummus were transformed into firm tofu (albeit with greener, more vegetal overtones). He then tops the cool terrine with a dice of bacon (for smoke) a scattering of cilantro (for aroma) and a modicum of chili oil (for restrained heat). Gorgeous.
If that "vegetables-seasoned-with-meat" dish is Stone Barns-worthy, The Fung Tu Way is also adaptable enough to honor the traditions of cardboard box takeout fare. This is why Wu douses crispy chicken wings in a housemade yellow sauce that evokes the sinus-clearing sting of Chinese mustard packets (the ones that seem to invade everyone's office drawers post-delivery). He stuffs fatty pork belly into an egg roll but keeps the richness in check via something unexpected: the salty bitterness of olives. He takes a fluff-tacular bowl of brisket fried rice and finishes it with pomegranate seeds, adding a juicy, Sephardic counterpoint to the heady meat. And he pays homage to the classic softness of dan dan noodles with a German twist; he douses spaetzle in a bitter and fragrant Sichuan pork sauce. If the texture recalls Chef Boyardee a bit too much, just think of it as a spicy porridge and deal with it.
Sometimes, the Chinese associations are more freewheeling. Hence, a Mission Cantina-esque masa scallion pancake with smoked chicken (skip it), a fusion-y, five-spice seasoned Calabrian spreadable sausage (essentially a "meat dip" for shrimp chips), or excellent fried clam bellies dusted with tomato powder and black beans. "I don't cop to many things New England," says Wu, who grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. "I despise the Red Sox and Patriots, but I do fully admit to a love for fried clams."
Fung Tu is yet another argument for expanding our notion of what Chinese food is
And then there are the Mexican-esque "China-liques," wherein yucca chips chips and pork sauce sit atop a delicate egg custard. The preparation is craveworthy in the same way that lots of spicy, fatty dishes are craveworthy after six beers, but a more sober-minded gourmand will find that the ghost pepper used to fuel the ragu is overpowering. Such levels of pain are more appropriate for MCF, not for a venue like Fung Tu trying to do something more refined.
Wok-fried rice noodles, which practically scream with notes of toasted buckwheat, cool things down a bit. Wu adds kielbasa for extra oomph, making it all taste like a humble Eastern European take on Chinese fare. Wu justifies the pairing by talking about how Polish-Ukranian sausages are making their way into Northern China, but the better reasoning is that it just tastes good. And that indisputable deliciousness is why Fung Tu is yet another argument for expanding our notion of what Chinese food is and for convincing us to pay maybe just a little bit more for it.
Cost: A la carte dishes at $5-$32. Tasting menu at $65, with optional beverage pairings at $30.
Sample dishes: Savory meringue with toon leaves, fava bean curd terrine, Sichuan 'nduja with shrimp chips, pork belly egg roll, whole steamed fish with chile oil and black beans.
Bonus tip: Do the oolong tea ice cream for dessert; skip the forgettable fried bao with bananas.