Introducing Xian Wei, a Fine Dining Chinese Supper Club
It’s been a while since I’ve been to an “underground supper club.” These days, they’re not really underground (were they ever?) with websites that include instructions for
payment, er, “donation,” social media and photos from the events floating around. The only thing that’s still a secret is the location. Xian Wei, one of the newest supper clubs aims to bring fine dining regional Chinese food to LA foodies. The chef is 19-year-old Luther Chen who’s spent a year at CIA and then a couple of 6-month stints at fine dining kitchens in the South. He traveled for a couple of months in China after that honing his ideas. With a partner, Luther started Xian Wei and has a food truck featuring Chinese street barbecue on the way.
Luther isn’t interested in finishing up his CIA degree. Most chefs these days seem to think culinary school is a waste of time. But almost all agree you have to spend time in the kitchen. When asked why, Luther said he didn’t want to learn someone else’s food. In a way, you’re getting Luther’s pure vision. Still, I think there’s some merit to checking out what others are doing. This was evident with how the supper club was run in regards to front of the house service (more glassware is needed!) and policies (I and others enthusiastically supported BYOB and spurned the idea of corkage in a private home). I attended the third Xian Wei dinner so I suspect the next ones will be much more smooth. Xian Wei had offered a wine pairing that evening but I like BYOB better. I brought wine but another diner brought craft beer that worked out very well with the courses.
We started off with pigface; slices of pig snout with Luther’s housemade spicy sauce and sliced daikon. It gave us a taste of the spicy sauce that I think he should bottle to sell. We also had a sesame cake that’s made in the microwave. I’ve had versions of microwave cake before at surprising places like my local favorite Italian restaurant, Drago Centro. It’s actually a modernist technique. Luther dabbed one with a bit of fermented bean curd which can be very salty.
Sesame – 30-second microwave sesame cake, sesame salt, fermented bean curd
Next we had a salad of sorts with the Sichuan pickles. I tend to think of Sichuan food as very spicy and love all the marinated salads you can get with your meal. This was a more genteel version that you could amp up with a bit of the spicy sauce.
Sichuan pickles – daikon, cucumber, wood ear mushrooms, Sichuan peppercorn
I happen to love tofu in all forms but fresh is really a treat. The fresh tofu with quahog clams were highlighted in the brine-y broth. The bean curd broth was poured into our bowls at the table. It was a great show and presentation.
Anhui tofu – fresh tofu, bean curd broth, quahog clams, wild seaweed
Luther has a booming voice that gets more boisterous as he expands with excitement about his food. When he decided to make xiao long bao or juicy soup dumplings, he obsessively watched videos on dumpling making for 3 days while practicing the art. The result was his 85 degrees XLB with Berkshire pork and Chesapeake crab. The smoky, porky dumpling tended more towards the pork side of things. I didn’t get much crab out of it but it was an impressive job for someone who learned how to make dumplings in 3 days. I also enjoyed the tiny steamer basket presentation. If you lifted the steamer, you can see Luther had added tiny pieces of wood for smoking. This accounted for that extra smokey taste.
Shanghai: 85 degrees xiao long bao – head-to-toe Berkshire pork, Chesapeake crab
Since I’ve been eating Cantonese food (Guandong is the Mandarin word for Canton) all my life, I like to think I know a thing or two about Cantonese food. I felt this dish was one of the most liberal visions of traditionally steamed Cantonese fish. The pomfret was decorated with fermented young sprouts in a style closer to kimchi. There was also a burnt tomatillo sauce on the plate that my grandmother would have wondered about. Was it good? Very much so. But Cantonese food isn’t spicy and so this dish is a bit confusing as well. If I didn’t know this was to represent Canton, I would say it’s my favorite. It just doesn’t evoke the whole steamed fish of my childhood. That should be said with caution though. Obviously this supper club is about individual portions. Family style isn’t really fine dining, at least not in American and European terms.
Guandong: yu – cured white pomfret, fermented young sprouts, burnt tomatillo
As mentioned, Luther and his partner are planning a Chinese street BBQ truck named Shao Kao. While he was in China, he marveled how the very best street barbecue specialists had different spices for different foods. Most street vendors used the same spice powder on everything but Luther learned you don’t put the same spice mixture on vegetables as you do on meat. He offered us a small taste of his lamb which was cooked almost rare yet was quite perfect. What we raved about was the charred eggplant. At first he didn’t want us to eat the crispy blackened skin but that was the most amazing part. He also made the soy yogurt which adding a cooling touch to the dish.
The truck plans to park late night for bar hoppers to enjoy just like they do in China. I can see this finding a home next to bacon-wrapped hot dogs and street tacos.
Xinjiang: shaokao – Chinese street barbecue lamb, eggplant, cultured soy yogurt, leaves of young peas
Fortunately for my non-sweet tooth, the dessert was typical of Asian desserts that aren’t very sweet. The taro was cooked into a sort of pudding with chestnut, tapioca and “textures of ice.” It was delicately savory and a good way to end after the last few intensely flavored dishes.
Taro – textures of ice, taro cremeux, tapioca, brown sugar chestnut
Xian Wei has sold out its March and April dates so be sure to sign up for their mailing list to be notified when the next supper club dates are. If Xian Wei and Shao Kao are successful, Luther plans on a very small restaurant. I hope so because LA has moved back towards a hot restaurant scene now that the economy is marginally better. Supper clubs and food trucks were successful during the economic down turn and now is the time to embrace a brick and mortar. Or perhaps Luther can “pop up” at an established kitchen. Whatever the case will be, it was fun to check out the various regions of Chinese cooking at Xian Wei.
© The Minty 2014