Friday, 7 July 2017


Before we begin properly, a brief introductory anecdote; whenever I visit a restaurant that hasn't been open long, I try to avoid reading anyone else's reviews or blogs so I can go in with a completely open mind. I might make a note of a couple of dishes on the restaurant's Instagram feed I like the look of, but generally I just pitch up.

This approach occasionally has its downfalls.  Mostly it involves me missing out on a 'must-try' dish; clearly this means I have to go back, this time without subjecting my dining companion to bloggers' rules (no touching your food before the photo, get your arms out of the shot, don't make shadows on the table etc.). So, not too grim.

Hence, pretty much all I knew about Xu - apart from that it is pronounced 'Shu' — was that it was the newest baby of the Bao group, serving Taiwanese food in Soho. We rocked up on a sunny lunchtime, me in Camden market hippie trousers and him in a t-shirt and shorts, to find that Xu is actually a pretty swish place. Our sharp-suited waiter, clearly a part-time GQ model, seated us next to a table of worldly and immaculately dressed twenty-somethings with handbags worth more than my car. Awkward.

Except that it wasn't, at all. The staff were all breezily charming, the service perfectly pitched and the overall feel of the restaurant really relaxed. You could dress up to come here, but you don't have to. Halfway through the meal, I realised why; everybody is far too busy concentrating on their food to worry about you.

We started with a Taiwan Beer and a couple of dishes of peanut lotus crisps — ridiculously moreish crispy discs of lotus root with chilli, peanut and wintermelon syrup. These had a delicious peanut butter & jelly, salty-sweet appeal that had me eyeing my companion's plate enviously long after mine were gone. I may or may not have surreptitiously dabbed my plate clean with a damp fingertip.

We could have just ordered the entire starter menu as small plates, but we eventually went for the Xian bing - generously sized, aged pork pancakes, served with a chilli and vinegar dip. These were plump and perfectly cooked with a pleasingly crisp, browned exterior. Happily there were two to a portion or there could well have been a scene.

My companion is particularly fond of eel, so we also ordered the tomato and smoked eel with daikon. I am so very happy we did, as this was outstandingly good. I was initially a little disappointed at the size of the tiny, delicate pieces of eel but their flavour was so deep, rounded and gorgeously smoky that the eel balanced perfectly with the freshness and acidity of the tomatoes. When you go to Xu - and you really, really must - don't miss this.

Next up was the chicken wing with a punchy sanbei glaze topped with caviar. I first had this combination at Elizabeth (née Allen) Haigh's Shibui pop-up at Carousel and this was almost as good. It may sound like an unlikely pairing but the caviar adds the smallest briny zing to the dish which works really well with the other flavours.

On to the mains, and more difficult choices. We opted for the shou pa chicken; this arrived as what looked like an entire chicken, peppery, juicy and bronzed, adorned with softened ginger and spring onion. I know I have a tendency to over-ordering as I hate to miss out, but this was huge — and incredible value for money.

Unfortunately they did not have the char siu pork on the day we went, so that will have to wait for a rematch; the second main we ordered turned out to be my other stand-out dish of the day, the chilli egg drop crab. Served in the shell, this was everything I had hoped; the delicious, garlicky chilli sauce was pleasantly but not mouth-numbingly spicy, allowing the full flavour of the crab to come through.

We had ordered the bamboo chilli beef fat rice to go with — or rather alongside, as when it turned up it was a mini meal in itself. Chi Shiang rice from Taiwan with aged beef fat, chilli and coriander, wrapped in bamboo leaves, this was not dissimilar in style to the classic Chinese sticky rice in lotus leaf which is a staple of my every dim sum order. The Xu version was incredibly rich, full-flavoured and very satisfying. Fortunately we had already had a gentle suggestion from the front of house staff that a plain rice might be advisable to go with the crab. It was; I wouldn't have wanted to waste any of that sauce.

I didn't get to the desserts, so you are going to have to do that for me. I heartily recommend a visit to Xu; it's amazing value for such accomplished cooking, it has a great vibe and it takes reservations. Did I mention there is a tea salon downstairs and a cocktail bar upstairs? Well, I just did. Get there pronto.

Yours, a total Xu addict,
London Girl About Town xx

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