February 1, 2016
In the annals of Austin restaurants, few establishments have been so hotly anticipated—for so long—as Wu Chow. Stuart Thomajan and C.K. Chin, the team behind Swift’s Attic, announced their upscale, modern take on traditional Chinese cuisine at the end of 2013. Two years later, the doors finally opened.
The protracted hype certainly built fervor. Wu Chow staff have been dancing through the spotlight, teasing their fare at pop-ups and food festivals and sending a consistent message about their aim: to bring high-end, authentic (read: not Americanized) Chinese cuisine to the capital city using fresh, quality ingredients cooked by classically trained chefs from China.
Let’s be fair. Austin has Chinese restaurants, fancy ones, even. You can find traditional regional dishes that I’ll bet are being prepared by cooks from China. If you’ve delved into Chinese regional cuisine at all, you’re likely to be familiar with some of the dishes. But the city doesn’t have another Chinese restaurant like Wu Chow.
It’s unabashedly posh and hip. Hip-hop music blasts overhead, the cocktail program is decidedly tiki and the decor, with its warm wood, muted tones and pops of bright color, owes far more to the modern design canon than the Chinese, though playful takes on traditional elements are woven throughout. The live goldfish at the entrance has a bowl adorned with dollar-sign bling, fitting for a symbol of prosperity. Lotus shows up as gilded lamps and mah jongg tiles line an accent wall. My favorite detail is the chopstick sleeve, which is like the instructional wrapper found in takeout bags but with a cheeky addition. (I won’t spoil the fun. Just see for yourself.)
The menu, however, is more restrained. The selection is modest and purposefully curated, focusing squarely on authentic dishes while still appealing to the Western palate. In other words, beyond moo shu pork, but not quite to frog congee. Wu Chow employs two chefs. Ji Peng Chen presides over the dinner menu, serving fare that spans China’s diverse regional cuisines, from Fujian-inspired scallions hugging beef, to the mild, light Cantonese lobster with ginger and scallions, to the much-touted Shanghai soup dumplings. With their dainty pleats, velvety broth and rich pork, they certainly earn the zeal. And they do sell out.
Dishes don’t stray too far from their classic origins, though they’ll occasionally be interpreted with local ingredients. For instance, honey prawns with pecans, a sweet, creamy Hong Kong specialty, shows up on Wu Chow’s menu with Gulf shrimp and Texas pecans. I certainly appreciate the meaty, sweet-iodine flavor of our regional shrimp and the perfectly toasted, honeyed nuts, but, alas, it seems I’ll never be a fan of the mayonnaise-based sauce, no matter how well it’s done.
But fiery, mouth-numbing Sichuan cuisine is Chen’s specialty, and it’s where Wu Chow’s menu truly shines. The gloriously silken braised eggplant was the star dish of my visits, and I was also a fan of the fiery mapo tofu and the spicy wontons, bathed in the requisite deep red chile oil, garlicky and hot with the characteristic anesthetizing heat of honest-to-goodness Sichuan peppercorns. (Reportedly, Chef Chen took years of study to perfect his chile oil and guards it so carefully, he waits for everyone to leave the kitchen before he makes it.) Sichuan is my husband’s favorite cuisine, and we’ve scoured the city for the best examples of it. Wu Chow is it. I do suspect they turn down the heat for Western palates, though. We can take it!
Chef Ling Qi Wu helms Wu Chow’s dim sum menu, served Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Small snack fare meant to be eaten with tea, dim sum is essentially China’s answer to brunch. Selections include well-executed classics, including a variety of dumplings, such as chicken and shiitake shumai, crystal-skinned Gulf shrimp ha gow and the divine and deeply flavored shrimp and leek cakes (actually dumplings). Yes, you can also get soup dumplings, as well as char sui bao, barbecued pork stuffed into tender, snowy-white steamed buns and fabulously tender turnip cakes. Other winners include shrimp-stuffed eggplant and the crisp and fresh gai-lan broccoli dressed with just enough oyster sauce.
And in keeping with dim sum tradition, there’s a selection of barely sweet treats, such as egg custard and sesame-encrusted glutinous rice fritters stuffed with bean paste. If anything’s Americanized about the dim sum menu, it’s the service. There are no roving carts or even tickets to mark off your selections. You order off a menu through your server like you would at any regular brunch. Not too exotic. Whatever you order, get it with a For-mosa, Wu Chow’s take on a mimosa made with chrysanthemum syrup in place of orange juice. At $1 a flute or $2 a glass, how could you not?