I walked from Piccadilly Circus, through the busy afternoon streets of central London, a busker’s painful rendition of Kodaline’s All I Want, a lot of honking and chitter chatter, into the refuge of the suddenly quiet teahouse.
My mind was all over the place; I had been writing my Masters dissertation and was stuck in the middle of my second chapter for what felt like weeks. I’d write a thousand words, scrap a thousand, have a staring contest with my computer screen, and then always lose because it never blinked. Everything I wrote was hot garbage, and the disease spread by the refuse of bad ideas seemed to be affecting all my other work.
But I made progress the morning I decided on XU. I shutdown my laptop for the first time in a few days, and ended my chapter just before the final paragraph to start the next session with something still to write. I felt like a mess, unshaven, with hums of carpal tunnel and a twitchy eye, but the small win made me hate myself a little less. It was the glimpse of hope I needed to get me out of the house.
Walking into XU was like entering a quiet room mid-conversation, one that was carried in from a loud street. Feeling indecorous, my mind quietened immediately and embraced the calm, the quiet of the space, with only the whispers of guests and the clinking of cutlery faintly audible in the background.
I asked for a table for one, and instead of being shown to a bar stool, was led up some stairs into a cosy dining room. It was relatively empty and faintly resonant with the sombre tunes of a sophisticated speakeasy. Slow beats of music with a serene mood, tones that lulled, relaxed and facilitated the kind of tranquillity I needed.
The furniture, resplendent, varnished wood of darker browns and greens, made for an elegant yet understated ambience. The bar was impressive, an austere wooden centre piece, a cosy pod surrounded by high seats, stocked with spirits and manned by a busy bartender in a lab coat. All the staff wore these, perhaps a tradition of Taiwanese tea sommeliers.
There is something about the patterns of their geometric designs that sets you at ease. Nothing you could call ornate, but still an assembly of ascetic pieces that culminated in a sort of demure cultural finesse. After spending weeks, even months in my slovenly man-cave, only coming out for the weekly review, living on rations, a place such as this was a balm for my troubled mind.
The reason I was taken upstairs was because they had a seat just for me, for one person, albeit by the toilets (though I am not complaining). I liked it; a seat set perfectly for one, not in some forgotten spot in the room, but placed in such a way that the whole room opened up to me. There were also these little drawers hidden underneath the seats which allowed me to put my stuff out of the way.
Since it has been awhile since I ate at Bao – almost a year now, since it was one of the first places I reviewed – I thought I’d patronise another establishment by the Chung siblings, to see if the same high standards persisted. Their staying true to Taiwanese tradition is refreshing, and in the case of XU, a new-fangled yet familiar introduction to 1930’s Taipei.
XU is endowed with a deeply rooted nostalgia. The name itself is eponymous: a tribute to Erchen Chang’s deceased grandfather, who was a reporter and tea aficionado. It is why the place offers up some of the most incredible brews from Taiwan (the one’s that he enjoyed best), and the menu is designed very much like a sheet of newspaper.
The offerings at XU are unique, presenting a mix of xiao tsai (bar snacks or Taiwanese tapas), and several main dishes that appeared more Chinese and recognisable. After a moment of introspection, I decided to go with variety choose a series of small dishes, only ordering a rice bowl besides to tide me over in case the other portions were too small.
I began my XU journey with some peanut lotus crisps with wintermelon syrup. I was intrigued by this dish because to my knowledge, wintermelon or wax gourd is tasteless. Instead, the small plate arrived with a mountain or crispy peanut crumbed lotus crisps that tasted addictively sweet. They reminded me of something that could go in a Bombay mix, something my dad would mow through in seconds and then call for another helping.
The xian bing and the taro dumplings came together, which was a tad unfortunate since when compared, the taro was significantly more delicious. The xian bing, pan fried dumplings filled with sumptuously sounding beef shortrib, was a delightfully cooked dumpling with a filling that was more than a little dry. The taro dumplings, a glutenous mochi-like dumpling, came packed with a succulent and bouncy filling of Taiwanese sausage. Texturally superb, the flavours of these dumplings ascend with a roll in the garlicky oil of kow choi.
I tried to savour the mouthful of a single scallop as much as I could. It came in its bright half-shell encapsulated with a shimmering, granular xo sauce with flecks of bone marrow. The seafood, utterly fresh and sweet, took on the spiciness of the sauce in vibrant amalgamation.
A lunch bowl of 40-day aged ribeye steak, with steamed rice and an egg yolk was a little underwhelming. The meat was perfectly cooked, pink and sweetened by its black bean marinade, but did not do enough to make the dish the winner that I thought it could be.
In any case, the neatly diced tomato and smoked eel plate, intertwined with coils of soy dried daikon, affected a lively combination of flavours in a balsamic vinaigrette. Its arrival with the rice bowl provided an acidic lightness that cut through the fatty richness of the main.
Once all the food was comfortably incorporated, I settled down to a pot of tea. I ponderously sipped a fragrant jasmine brew of the perfect temperature, whiling away the afternoon filled with a special aura of gratitude. The tea cleansed me of all the stress and agitation, calming me with its in-brewed zen. It was odd, but my thoughts began to slow down and dissipate, and I settled into the kind of present-ness I was writing about in my thesis. I left XU feeling utterly rejuvenated, ready to duel with my dissertation…not just ready, but excited.
Location: 30 Rupert St, London W1D 6DL