In this week’s review, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells awarded two stars to Fung Tu on the Lower East Side. This is the first time, at least in our memory, that he has reviewed a restaurant that his colleague, Ligaya Mishan, highlighted in her Hungry City column. This gave his readers a look into the progression of a New York City restaurant — one that made necessary adjustments to improve the overall quality of their food and service.
When Mishan visited at the start of spring in 2014, there were hints of the refined and nuanced fare Per Se-trained chef and owner Jonathan Wu wanted to serve to his guests. As she put it, “the menu here… looks from East to West in surprising ways… The layers astound.” Yet, at the time, the flavors and technique hadn’t completely matured, and “At times, classics [were] reinvented to no discernible improvement.” Back then, the kitchen seemed to succeed most when serving nostalgic favorites, such as Wu’s duck-stuffed dates, which were the chef’s “attempt to recreate a long-lost street snack from pre-revolutionary Shanghai that his relatives still sigh over.”
Those dates receive praise once again in Well’s review, and he judged them to be one of the dishes that were good when the restaurant opened in 2013, and “are at least as good now. Some may be better.” Luckily — and this is where the improvement becomes evident to the reader — the critic writes that “many of the new dishes are a reason for anybody who wrote off Fung Tu after the early days to put a return visit at the top of the calendar.”
One of these dishes is Fung Tu’s China-quiles, which also serve as a microcosmic example of the upward progression of the restaurant. Back when Wells first visited the eatery in 2013, “On the opening menu, a similar but more fainthearted pork sauce was ladled over a white pile of doughy, bland dumpling knots. The sauce on the China-quiles is so much more delicious that you couldn’t call it an evolution; it’s more like an intervention.”
Other Wells-recommended dishes include lion’s head meatballs on you tiao bread, cured Spanish mackerel and ma la vinaigrette, Sichuan ’nduja with shrimp chips, crêpe roll stuffed with braised beef, egg roll, fried pork chop with pickled mustard greens, and roasted duck with stir-fried farro and vegetables. All in all, Fung Tu seems to have evolved to serve relatively subtle, ingredient-driven Chinese cuisine, as chef Wu’s “cooking has always relied on nuance. It still does, but now the accents have been filled in. When something is supposed to be salty or spicy, it is. When salt and spice aren’t on the dance card, farmers’ market vegetables and other main ingredients step up.”