Parts of Manhattan were once dotted with upscale Chinese restaurants a few decades ago — the still extant Shun Lee empire, for instance, used to have four branches in Midtown and the Upper West Side, presenting Cantonese fare on a grand scale with tableside service. Since then, the number of luxury Chinese eateries began to dwindle. Today, though, upscale Chinese dining is coming back, with new places popping up where spending $100 or more is easy. Sure, some of the restaurants are imports from China, like DaDong and Hutong. But there are homegrown places, too, like Union Square newcomer Xu’s Public House.
The restaurant’s name sounds like it could be an Irish bar in China, with the homely connotations of “public house,” which is often shortened to “pub.” Though the address is 15 Union Square West, the entrance is more than a few steps down 15th Street.
But what an interior presents itself when you step inside! On the ground floor, a bar on the right remains currently liquor-free, though decorated with an array of seductively lit blue bottles. The lampshades, round mirrors, and bare bricks faintly suggest the Victorian era, while padded and winged chairs are exceedingly comfortable.
A winding staircase has an isolated table on one landing that surveys the scene (grab it!). It leads upstairs to a larger dining room, which has plants hanging from the ceiling, sky lights, and a more artsy vibe, with geometric grids reminiscent of stock market charts implanted in the walls. On the evening I went, the place was hopping both downstairs and up, often with large tables of people who looked like they could have come right here from the the office or classroom.
A chalkboard outside promises Shanghai fare, while various online notices have suggested Asian fusion. Yet, one look at the brunch and dinner menus shout Cantonese. Which is it? Well, the kitchen boasts two chefs: Louis Shen specializes in Shanghai cooking and is based in China. “He comes over every season to add new dishes to the menu,” says general manager and partner Kenny Yang. The Cantonese stuff is supervised by another chef, Ryan Cai. Other dishes are thrown in from several provinces, sometimes with European influences, and the usual modern notions concerning fresh produce, meats, and locally sourced seafood are observed.
A pair of normal looking shrimp egg rolls ($6) turn out to also be stuffed with fresh mozzarella, which oozes as they’re eaten. While this effect is slightly disturbing, the cheese does make the rolls taste richer without changing the flavor. This being at least partly a Shanghai spot, the restaurant provides four types of soup dumplings. Pork and pork with crab ($8 and $12, respectively), served three to a steamer, are good but not wonderful, with the defect being skins that are thicker than I liked.
Two of those dumplings are the faddish gigantic ones, offered one to a steamer along with a metal straw to pierce the thick skin. One version ($12) is stuffed with mushrooms that the menu identifies as Morchella esculenta. They prove quite delightfully to be miniature morels, one of the world’s most expensive mushrooms, now apparently being cultivated in China. As a signifier of luxury, the morel is unsurpassed, but the mushroom with its honeycomb cap adds more to the texture of the soup than the taste.
Another dish is Yangzhou noodles in clear broth ($18 at dinner), name checking a city in Jiangsu northwest of Shanghai. With its jiggly boiled egg, floppy wheat noodles, and sliced pork belly, the bowl looks an awful lot like Japanese ramen, and there’s even a version featuring a creamy pork bone broth. The former ramen resembled a typical serving found in a Japanese restaurant, porky enough to remind you what the broth is made of, though the noodles were softer.
Among apps, luxury dishes abound, including little egg custard pies topped with sea urchin ($12) or caviar ($30). Another starter takes a pastry shell, fills it with lobes of foie gras cooked rare, and then strews fresh berries in syrup across it in what amounts to a very French treatment of the fatty liver. Unfortunately the pastry shell is hard and not flaky enough, though this $25 exercise in culinary transplantation is a fascinating one.
Main courses run from $20 to $45 and include “Szechuan tiger prawns,” a handful of large specimens perfectly cleaned and cooked, and laved in a delicate chile oil sauce that barely leaves a stain upon the plate. They represent a total reworking of a Sichuan standard, but blander. Other entrees include steaks delivered aflame, a prawn and lobster risotto, baby pea pod tips cooked in wine, and blue crab served with rice cakes. In a section devoted to Chinese-American classics, a wonderful fried rice ($18) exploded with ginger, garlic, and green onions, with a choice of main ingredients. It arrived in a ceramic dish that looks like a carryout carton. Xu’s sure has its presentations down pat.
Breakfast, lunch, and brunch occupy a cheaper menu, mainly devoted to recognizably Cantonese dim sum. There are shrimp har gow with a stylish black wrapper, sticky rice enfolded in a pair of lotus leaves, pork riblets in black bean sauce, four versions of congee, and, yes, steamed chicken feet. The pork and preserved egg congee ($10) was as good as any found in Chinatown. Xu’s proves a great place to enjoy a dim sum service any day, if one wants to avoid the crowds at Chinatown restaurants.
There are other, more ambitious dishes on the midday menu, including a highly recommended beefsteak in sake sauce ($22) that came decorated with flower petals. The beef was delivered in bite size pieces, sweet without being too sweet. But there was also truly awful orange chicken, so cloying you might as well have eaten a handful of hard candies. Orange beef is said to have originated in Hunan, but this orange chicken owes more to Panda Express.
Based on a couple of meals, I would say Xu’s is one of the more interesting Chinese restaurants to appear recently, cobbling together an agreeable bill of fare that might please anyone at both the low and high end of the cost spectrum. It highlights a European idea of luxury via foie gras, morel mushrooms, and caviar, instead of the more traditional Chinese culinary status symbols like abalone and sea cucumber. And Xu’s does it in a pair of comfortable dining rooms with little reference to Asian art and architecture, apart from a few objects displayed in niches on the ground floor.
Can the place succeed in building a broad customer base, and help reinvigorate upscale Chinese dining outside of Chinatown? Let’s watch and find out.