Much has been made of the stark differences between Xiao Bao Biscuit and Tu, with the restaurants’ owners doing their share of the making. Since they first announced their Meeting Street project, Joshua Walker and Joey Ryan have stressed the disparities so bluntly that a Tu overview could double as a children’s book about contemporary restaurant style:
- Xiao Bao, which opened at Spring and Rutledge streets in 2012, serves soulful food with an Asian bent. Tu’s menu is chockablock with delicate dishes deeply indebted to the western world, featuring hominy here and sour cream there.
- Xiao Bao is dimly lit after dusk, projecting a moodiness that matches up with a bar that runs close to the dining room’s length. Tu fairly glows pink-and-white, in the fashion of a vintage department store’s powder room; its abbreviated marble bar is set with half a dozen spindly stools.
- Xiao Bao checks the strength of its Sichuan peppercorns by offering Thai beer in sweaty bottles. At Tu, the drink of choice is sherry in a glass that’s a smidge smaller than a parakeet’s water cup.
With the right illustrator, I could go on. But the divergence that strikes me as most significant is the operating schedule. Unlike Xiao Bao, Tu is open exclusively at night. That’s a shame, because it’s likely to lead potential guests to lump it in with other dinner options: “What are you in the mood for tonight, sweetie? Steak? Italian? Tu?” Yet Tu in many ways behaves more like a modern art gallery than a restaurant, with a greater emphasis on experimentation than mundane concerns like appetite.
With its scaled-down plates and two-ounce drink portions, Tu is the perfect venue for intellectual browsing. It’s the type of place where a diner could find an ingredient combination fascinating, but not quite like it, or burn out synapses determining what Walker was trying to do with a particular dish. In other words, it’s a restaurant where one might, if one could, while away an afternoon.
Apropos of nothing, on my third visit to Tu, a stranger at the table next to mine turned toward me while I was twirling garlicky turnip ribbons on to my fork. “Did you go to the Charleston Comedy Festival?” he asked. The festival had ended the previous week, but the question seemed reasonable in light of the mock noodles and cod-crowned hash brown patty before us: It takes a sense of humor, and a soft spot for performance, to fully appreciate Tu, regardless of the hour.
Tu’s turnip-based play on puttanesca is gone now, along with the dense plank of garlic bread and deeply charred broccoli florets that kept it company. That’s the fate that awaits the majority of Tu’s brainchildren, since the dish lineup was designed to fluctuate: It’s Walker and Ryan’s way of favorite-proofing their menu. According to Ryan, the last thing they want on their hands is another okonomiyaki, the Xiao Bao cabbage pancake that unexpectedly went haywire. (If you haven’t had it, you can see it on T-shirts around town.)
A few dishes at Tu play the “look away, I’m hideous” card a little too brazenly. Slices of hazelnut-iced parsnip cake, blitzed with dehydrated parsnips that resemble a healthy dose of dry scrambled eggs, come across as punishment for ordering dessert. Greasy fried nuggets of creamed corn sunk in a foamy egg sauce aren’t helped by an ungainly plop of bitter greens at the center of their ring formation. And the provocatively named cheese ice, which emerged as an early contender for Tu’s cult classic title, amounts to nothing more than a frozen dairy dressing screen to shield the deliciously unclothed crudo.
CUISINE: Contemporary continental
REPRESENTATIVE DISH: Agua chile ($12)
ADDRESS: 430 Meeting St.
BAR: Full bar
HOURS: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-midnight, Friday-Saturday
FOOD: 3.5 stars
SERVICE: 4 stars
ATMOSPHERE: 4 stars
Generally, though, Tu’s flavors fall into line, even if those lines shoot off in directions that diners don’t necessarily anticipate. “I don’t know what they were smoking when they came up with this one,” the comedy fan told his dining companion when another visually cryptic dish landed on their table.
The kitchen at Tu is smoking all sorts of things, including the luxurious black cod that gets its Eastern European passport stamped by sweet beet chutney, dill fronds and a puddle of poppyseed-studded buttermilk in which fermented leeks lurk.
Then there are pork ribs, which serve primarily as a platform for an inspired garnish of Dr Pepper-enhanced mustard, fennel seeds and puffed amaranth. Also: Chopped pastrami, scattered atop a sauerkraut pancake, along with pickles and gobs of buttermilk dressing. It’s a veritable deli explosion, plus ranch.
Still, the best meat dish at Tu is a meat hoax: A single purple beet is treated with the care and chimichurri usually expended on beef, its ersatz blood pooling around a crescent of griddled cheese that’s gloriously crisp on top. The dish is almost surreally creamy and earthy at once, befitting a restaurant that announces on its website, “There is no spoon.”
Other highlights at Tu include a devastatingly good lamb tartare with a gravity that’s tough to square with prancing baby sheep. Coarsened by freekah, the harissa-enhanced dish draws its character, and cooling teardrops of labneh, from the Near East.
Clearly, these dishes require some explaining, partly because they change so frequently: A shaved ice which mimicked peanut butter-and-jelly on one visit had morphed into a tribute to basil seeds and Strawberry Quik by the next.
Fortunately, Tu’s service staff is more than up to the task, providing helpful guidance that never tilts into condescending territory. Unfortunately, their demeanor is far more professional than their dress: While random band T-shirts confirm the wearers are cool enough to work at a restaurant with disco lighting in its private dining room, the stains and holes seem a little too casual for a dining room in which bread service costs $5 a person.
Servers’ knowledge of the wine list matters less, because you may well end up drinking most of them. Ryan has come up with an array of fun cocktails, including a pleasurable blend of vodka, housemade rye and barley brine that sounds the same cultural notes as Walker’s horseradish-laden pierogis, and chosen a few local craft beers for palates that lean that way. But it’s the wine selection that’s positively polyphonic, with more than two dozen satisfying oddities from regions such as Austria, Greece and the Canary Islands, in addition to France, Italy and California.
Pricing is equally unorthodox. Basically, you’d have to be a fool to order in any kind of quantity, since it costs $3 for two ounces of a red blend from the Loire Valley’s J. Mourat; $13 for five ounces and $50 for a 25-ounce bottle, to take one representative example. Tu is aware of the bad math; it’s essentially economic railroading to make sure customers don’t do anything boring.
After all, there is nothing boring about Tu, which has titillation to spare. In fact, I suspect Tu’s brand of excitement and challenge only register as refreshing if you spend an awful lot of time in restaurants, which is exactly what Charleston diners do.