Chef Jonathan Wu of Fung Tu Talks Brunch, Neighborhood Foraging, Menu Additions
Have you tried China-quiles? Chances are the answer to that question is “no,” unless you’ve checked out the month-old brunch menu at Fung Tu, the creative Chinese spot at 22 Orchard St. Chef Jonathan Wu’s unique spin on the traditional Mexican dish combines Chinese steamed egg custard with Sichuan pork sauce and yucca chips.
During a conversation inside his eight-month old restaurant last week, Wu explained, “I’m a big lover of Mexican food. It’s great hangover food. It’s soupy, it has eggs often. Yucca chips came from a family trip I took to India — street food we were eating all the time. The dish defines our brunch. It’s supposed to be fun.”
The idea for Fung Tu took shape three years ago when Wu met Wilson Tang, the second generation owner of Chinatown’s Nom Wah Tea Parlor, at a brunch pop-up in Williamsburg. Together with John Matthew Wells and Jason Wagner, they set out to create a restaurant unlike any in Chinatown, focused on inventive reinterpretations of homestyle classics. After opening last November, Fung Tu has earned praise for its cutting edge yet subtle take on Chinese American cuisine.
At least one or two days a week, Wu makes his way to the Union Square Greenmarket by around 9:30 a.m., to pick out the best local produce, items such as summer squash, currants, fava beans and borage flowers. Other items are sourced directly from the neighborhood.
At Fong Inn Tu, an 80-year-old business on Mott Street, he buys soy milk and tofu. “It’s really special place,” said Wu. “Just going in there, it feels like a different world, and their soy milk is really high quality.” After heading out for a beef jerky tasting tour with Tang, they settled on Jung’s, a Mulberry Street favorite. “We tried Malaysian, sweet, dry,” explained Wu, but Jung’s stood out because, unlike some other spots, it was obvious their jerky was made from short ribs, rather than brisket. Mixed with dill and peanuts, it makes a satisfying bar snack. Those yucca chips are widely available within a few blocks of the restaurant, both at Hong Kong Market and Essex Street Market.
Wu, who formerly worked in the kitchen at Per Se, finds inspiration in many places but recollections from his family’s own kitchen are a major source. He was born in the Bronx and moved to Connecticut at the age of 5.
“My mother used a lot of star anise and ginger,” he said, “so those flavors are definitely reflected (in the menu). She used to do a soy bean stir fry with bacon and black vinegar. It was one of my favorite dishes because it was tart and acidic and that’s pretty rare in Chinese cooking.” Now at Fung Tu, those sprouts are cooked with squid, asparagus and Chinese bacon. A chopped cilantro salad with pressed bean curd and smoked chicken is a tribute to a similar dish one of Wu’s relatives from Shanghai makes.
Partner (and chef du cuisine) John Wells, who’s from Georgia, has gotten into the act, as well, contributing a multi-cultural version of a southern standby. The brunch menu features a fried chicken plate served with a steamed bun and Lap Cheong Gravy. Wagner, a well-regarded sommelier in both New York and Chicago before joining the Fung Tu team, oversees the wine and cocktail menu. There are several drinks created especially for brunch, including the “Bing Bing,” made with cold-brewed ice coffee, Maraschino-infused absinthe and coffee liqueur.
Opening Fung Tu on the border of Chinatown, where chefs have pretty much been putting out the same type of food for decades, was a gutsy move. As a one-of-a-kind restaurant, it’s a destination spot, attracting diners from across the city. But Wu said they’re also committed to being a neighborhood place. This past week, a new menu item, a Lion’s Head meatball slider, served on Youtiao (a Chinese-style cruller from Twin Marquis on Canal Street) made an appearance as a special. In a nod to locals, and others, who aren’t in a high-concept mood, the item will be on the regular menu starting next week.
Looking back on the decision to bring his personal “East meets West” style of cooking to lower Orchard Street, Wu concluded, “I knew it was something that was original and different and yet soulful and somehow authentic in spirit and I did, and still do, believe that it’s a special thing and that people will want to come and eat it.”
Fung Tu is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 6 p.m.-midnight. Saturday and Sunday brunch is served noon-4 p.m.