Wu Chow delivers Chinese cuisine in stylized downtown space

March 3, 2016

The owners of gastroclub Swift’s Attic challenged the notion of what a Chinese restaurant in Austin could be by opening Wu Chow in the IBC Bank building downtown late last year.

Wu Chow meets downtown condo dwellers and the white-collar crowd on familiar turf. The restaurant is all floor-to-ceiling gleaming glass and dark wood, with design highlights like a jade-colored communal table, a marvelous wall colored with hand-laid mahjong tiles, and black hexagon tiles suspended from the ceiling.

The aesthetic may have a modernist appeal, but the concise menu hews closer to tradition. If you’re looking for Americanized dishes like sesame chicken or sweet-and-sour pork, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Once you eat the soup dumpling at Wu Chow, you’ll be ready to ditch your General Tso training wheels. Chef Ling Qi Wu handles dim sum duties, and her Shanghai soup dumplings started gaining buzz at food events long before the restaurant opened. It’s rare that just one dish can build such heated anticipation for a restaurant opening. But, unlike with so many things these days, the hype is deserved.

The doughy pouches peel easily from bamboo steamers, their wobbly weight a tease. Poke a hole in the top to release some steam, slurp the initial juicy blast and slide the dumpling from its spoon. A viscous porky broth, some alchemical substance that is the closest thing to a solid a liquid can be, bursts from the pinched folds, notes of soy and ginger perfuming the enclosed ground pork. A handful of places in Austin make soup dumplings, but Wu Chow’s fragrant and enlivening version is the best I’ve had.

With a dish that great comes a small problem: Can the rest of the meal deliver on the promise of the first course? At one dinner, the answer was no. The gravy-swathed seafood in a dish of brittle and soggy two-faced noodles put up a rubbery struggle ($25), and the gong bao chicken had a mealy consistency contrasted by firm raw peanuts the color of tanned ivory ($15).

But all was not lost at dinner. Fresh peppers put vegetal snap in a jumble of supple and aromatic yu xiang pork tenderloin ($15), and savory stir-fried tangerine peel beef ($17) hummed in salty-sweet harmony. While the menu takes cues from tradition, chef Ji Peng Chen put a regional spin on an entree of golden shrimp lacquered with honey and topped by the candied crunch of pecans ($17).

The shrimp dish was almost as sweet but not as powerful as a tropical rum-based Tiki drink called the Chow Chicka Bow Wow ($14), with notes of banana, ginger, grapefruit and lime. The drink, perfectly suited to wake you up and lay you back down, was the highlight of a cocktail list that also featured an off-putting chili-oil-tinged take on an Old Fashioned ($14).

The restaurant shimmers with polished appeal, though a couple of rough service moments scuffed the sheen, such as receiving a $150 bottle of Brunello after ordering a $55 Barbera and then being refused a decanter from a server with scant knowledge of the wine list.

But, back to those soup dumplings. While dinner couldn’t match their heights, the brilliant showcase dish hinted at what Wu Chow does best — dim sum. The a la carte service (actual cart not included) is offered only on Sunday, and word has apparently gotten out. By the time the doors opened at 11 a.m. the crowd had formed.

They come for the dough-wrapped delights of savory-sweet pork and shrimp shumai (four for $7), crisp shrimp and cilantro dumplings (three for $7), and vibrant, glowing green dumplings stuffed with spinach and crunchy slivers of water chestnut (three for $3).

We gave our Lazy Susan a workout, playing tug of war with the rotating centerpiece. The char siu bao — sticky baked buns stuffed with sweet red-edged pork (three for $8) — demanded a second order, as did crackling turnip cakes creamy with pork fat on the inside (three for $5). Everything that came out — from massive shrimp fried to sunglow perfection (two for $6) to juicy dark meat chicken wrapped in foil ($8) — met with unanimous approval.

There are chicken and pork dumplings at dinner, but most of the dim sum dishes remain the province of Sunday service, likely due to the amount of time and labor required to fold and pinch all those delicate pouches.

One other dim sum menu item available during the week is the surprisingly good chicken and taro egg rolls ($6). Maybe expectations, like the music, are slightly lower in the daytime, but lunch proved a more even experience. The cigarillo-shaped egg rolls, fried to a clean finish, came with a floral sour plum dipping sauce and served as a nice reminder that not all deep-fried dishes have to be a crumbly and oily mess. Dry-fried green beans ($10) and Sichuan braised eggplant ($12), also available at dinner, didn’t challenge with their heat but were excellent examples of the form, the beans sturdy with firm snap and the eggplant alluring with lush sweetness.

More than anything, a fun lunch that included fluffy fried rice with pork and shrimp ($14) and a bowl of tender meatballs swimming in a restorative broth with bok choy ($12) proved what a welcome change of pace a firing-on-all-cylinders Wu Chow can be for our often safe and uninspired downtown dining scene. I want more variety in unexpected places.

Now, if I could just get that dim sum every day.