Xu opened in June 2017, the latest opening from the family who own Bao and its sister restaurant in Fitzrovia. The same JKS group also run Gymkhana, Lyles, Kitchen Table and Trishna. Xu is a 75-seat restaurant spread over two floors, the dining area splits into various nooks and crannies. Tables are what an estate agent might describe as “cosy”, especially the tables for one person.
The menu offers Taiwanese dishes. Taiwan (formerly Formosa) is a hundred miles off the Chinese coast and became established in its current form only in 1949. Taiwan was taken over by Chiang Kai-shek. his KMT political followers and around two million refugees, who had been expelled from mainland China. Although both China and Taiwan regard the island as part of greater China, they disagree about who is the legitimate government of that country, in a political and military stand-off. The island had at various times prior to this been colonised by the Spanish, Dutch and Japanese before the Chinese took over the island. Given its history and geography there are clearly significant overlaps between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese cuisine. Taiwanese cuisine features a lot of seafood, especially oysters, frequently involves broths, and dishes may use more sugar than is typically found in the eight main regional cuisines of mainland China. The menu offered a two course lunch for £19.50, or a la carte choice of starters ranging from £3 to £10, main courses £11.50 to £16.50, side dishes £2.50 to £9 and desserts £4.50 to £6.50.
The wine list ranged in price from £28 to £120, but with just four bottles under £35. It had labels such as Josef Ehmoser “von den Terrasen” Gruner Veltliner 2016 at £33 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £13, Alpha Estate Single Vineyard Turtles Malagouzia 2016 at £46 compared to its retail price of £18, and Domaine Rolet et Fils Arbois Tradition 2011 at £70 for a wine that will set you back about £23 in a shop.
I started with vermicelli with girolle mushrooms. The pasta was thin and had good texture, with the mushrooms being cooked with a distinct touch of vinegar. This was a pleasant dish, the sourness of the vinegar not too strong and bringing an interesting flavour to the mushrooms. The mushrooms themselves were cooked all right though had limited flavour, which is perhaps not surprising given that the European season for them is July and August, and it was now December (just about 13/20 due to the good pasta).
For the main course, sea bass that had been marinated in fermented bean curd and then grilled was topped with green and red pickled chilli and “bone sauce”. One oddity was that the bottom of the fish had crisp skin but the top, on which the peppers rested, was not. For me fish skin should either be crisp or removed; no one has ever advertised a dish on a menu as “sea bass with soggy skin”, but this was what was served here. The fish itself was cooked capably, with the chilli toppings being quite bold in their heat levels (12/20). I also had gai lan, which here was a somewhat stingy three pieces of Chinese broccoli, steamed and cooked with confit garlic and Shaoxing (fermented rice) wine. The broccoli was not as tender as it might be, and did not compare well with, for example, the version at Royal China, being a little stringy in texture (11/20). A bowl of rice that came with the set lunch was fine. Just two desserts were offered, one of these ice cream, and I skipped this additional course.
Service was fine. The bill came to £28 with just water to drink, taking advantage of the cheap lunch option. If you ate at dinner and shared a modest bottle of with then a typical cost per head might come to around £60. Although the £19.50 (plus service) for two courses is a lot less than the price at dinner, with that sea bass dish on the a la carte at £16.50 if you order it at dinner, you need to consider what else that money might buy you in central London. For example at the time of writing, if you want two lunch courses then £19 will buy you two courses at The Ninth, £22.50 gets you two courses at Social Eating House, or £27.50 also gets you two dishes at Seven Park Place. All these have Michelin stars. Perhaps Xu can cook better dishes than those I tried, but although the food that I sampled was decent enough there were minor issues with pretty much every dish, and it is hard to reconcile the standard of the food offered here with its far from trivial price point.