These days, New York’s Chinese food scene is in full-blown revival mode, fueled by red-hot joints like RedFarm and Mission Chinese Food, edging out dated fixations on cheap and “authentic” with promises of locavore and cool.
The latest restaurant to take a 21st-century crack at Chinese is Fung Tu, from Nom Wah Tea Parlor scion Wilson Tang and Per Se vet Jonathan Wu. In their slender, wood-rich room, cultural references are subtler than the typical red-lantern kitsch; spindly Pyrex light fixtures—made by Wu’s artist wife—were inspired by Chinese lattice patterns. They cast a gentle glow on tight-sweatered scenesters and beach-wood booths as stiff as church pews.
Rather than intensifying flavors, Wu’s cerebral plates subdue them. Ribbons of celtuce ($13) are vexingly tasteless, even slicked with buttery popcorn puree and the salty ooze of a soft-boiled, soy-soaked egg. A beige slab of broad-bean curd terrine ($13) is doused with chili oil, but conjures up little more than solid, grainy hummus.
More disappointing than these creative offerings are reinterpreted classics sapped of their trademark allure. Buttery steamed buns ($12) cocoon a mushy, salt-starved mix of vegetables and glass noodles; a bowl of gummy, spaetzle-esque knots of dough topped with heat-deficient chili-pork sauce ($19) are meant to reference mapo tofu, but recall overcooked Hamburger Helper.
Wu’s best dishes summon more assertive flavors. Steamed whole sea bream ($28) is salt-licked by pungent fermented black beans, its silky flesh teetering between briny and sweet. Springy sweet-potato rice cakes ($23) are pure comfort, their meaty chew bolstered by mushrooms, Chinese sausage and crinkly kale.
Those rice cakes give you what you’ve been missing all along, the earthy, wok-fired jolt that makes much of Chinese cooking so seductive. In pursuit of toned-down flavors, Fung Tu too often renders its cooking mute.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Duck-stuffed dates, sweet-potato rice cakes, whole steamed fish
Behind the bar: Wines are inspired by the nutty, fruity flavors of Asian rice wine; as promised by Chicago sommelier Jason Wagner, a watermelon-accented pineau d’anuis mollifies any chili heat.
Vibe: If you’re craving family-style dishes whirling on a lazy Susan, walk west to Chinatown; these delicate small plates were conceived for contemplation, not throwdown feasts.
Cocktail chatter: The oxblood-colored wallpaper panels depict toon leaves, a garlicky spring delicacy that Wu’s grandpa grows in his yard in Yonkers.
Soundcheck: There may be steamed buns on every table, but this is a far cry from the fever pitch of weekend dim sum.
By Daniel S. Meyer