It was with much anticipation that I first stepped over the threshold at XU London, the Taiwanese restaurant on the fringe of London’s Chinatown. Always on the lookout for authentic fare in the city, I was especially curious about XU, as I lived in Taipei as a teenager. The Taiwanese capital continues to rank as one of my top culinary cities – not so much in terms of fine, Michelin-star cuisine, but more so the excellent and intimate mom-and-pop eateries that I frequented as a child.
The interior immediately evoked some of the bijou establishments of my youth, in a beautiful, rose-tinted way. XU styles itself as “a cinematic reinterpretation of 1930s Taipei” and the art deco theme is beautifully expressed in the dark wood panelling, low-hanging bulbous lights, muted pink-and-green leather banquettes and twirling ceiling fans. At the same time, it still feels more down-to-earth than the flamboyant, flapper-style 1930s-Shanghai scene that has become so popular with Chinese restaurants in the past decade or so.
There is something quietly moody about the setting, which greets patrons with a tearoom downstairs, complete with a chic bar in jade-green wood. Upstairs, the restaurant’s menu, on single sheets of oversized paper – plus separate ones for cocktails and an extensive tea menu – rolled out the vintage charm.
The starter of chicken wings in sanbei glaze (£3) caught my eye and didn’t disappoint: their distinctive flavour played a big part in my upbringing. Delicately sweet and unbelievably moreish, they were a fantastic choice to “open up the appetite” as my grandmother used to say. The cocktails (£9) ranged from the Bei Gang, with Kombu rum, Manzanilla, honey, lime and wheatgrass to a Daiga Sour of Amontillado sherry, cognac, Chinese mushroom and liquorice root, which was a particularly memorable taste.
Beef pancake (£10), a rich and hearty short rib and bone marrow dish with spring onion and pickles, came with fried potato crumb for a satisfying crunch, and was followed by classic, tender, marinated Shou Pa chicken (£18.50) simmering in a bowl of ginger, spring onion and white pepper. While nothing complex, the top ingredients and obviously loving preparation transported me instantly to Taipei. A tangy, vinegary finish came courtesy of the grilled sea bass fillet (£16.50) marinated in fermented bean curd and topped with two-tone pickled chilli – as punchy in taste as it was in presentation.
XU is a real haven – if only to relish in the calm, sentimental atmosphere in the heart of bustling Soho. The restaurant also has two private Mahjong Rooms designed for dining, drinking and playing the beloved Chinese game, and I can easily see myself whiling away the hours there, dreaming of home while the red buses rattle past outside.