Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Black truffle xiao long bao
There may be no words that strike fear into the hearts of food writers of a particular vintage quite like "Asian Fusion." Ming Tsai rocks and Jean-George Vongerichten is rightly a legend, but the crimes of a couple thousand copiers just cannot be forgotten. So when I heard that Facing East Noodle & Bar (4647 Convoy St.) was doing black truffle and foie gras versions of xiao long bao, I was excited and dubious in equal parts. And I'm being generous. I needn't have been.
Xiao long bao are steamed Chinese soup dumplings. They are magic things in and of themselves, even in their most common form, because as the dumpling's skin is pierced a hot and delicious soup emerges. How did that soup get in there in the first place? The answer: the dumpling is made with gelatinized broth inside that melts as it cooks.
But what's magic in the first place is brought to a new level at Facing East. Riffing off a dish from the Taiwanese-based Din Tai Fung chain, Facing East adds black truffles to the classic pork xiao long bao resulting in a rich, earthy and lavish soup dumpling that is nothing short of luxurious. Their jet-black look—resulting from the addition of squid ink to the wrappers—highlights their exotic appeal.
As good as the black truffle xiao long bao are, save some superlatives for Facing East's foie gras version. As the rich, fatty, savory flavor of the foie washes over your tongue you wonder why it took fusion to bring such flavors to soup dumplings. There's nothing forced or discordant about it. The fusion of western-style ingredients and eastern form feels natural.
Many of the dishes at Facing East are not of the East-West fusion variety. Rather, the place seems to take more of an omnivorous, pan-Asian approach. If the xiao long bao are distinctly Chinese, the chicken karaage are basically high quality, Japanese chicken McNuggets with bits of soy-marinated chicken coated in potato starch and fried until just crisp. The interior is moist, savory, umami and utterly delicious. The exterior is crisped without being exactly hard. Where grilled chicken hearts are often charred to the point of being burnt and tougher than my mother-in-law, Facing East's are tender and perfectly caramelized. Facing East's duck bao—pillowy, yeasty, stuffed folded buns—are little, Peking Duck-like, delightful bites. Facing East's menu is a tour of Asia in a sitting.
One of the best dishes at Facing East was the braised beef noodle soup. It features tender, long-simmered beef, baby bok choy, slurpable noodles and a Chinese five-spice spiked broth with a hint of tomato. This version is Taiwanese-style rather than the more familiar Vietnamese pho-style. It is, however, just as comforting and addictive.
Ultimately, though, Facing East will rise or fall on the strength of those remarkable xiao long bao. Few things in life manage to surprise even as they feel like they've always been there and you just discovered them. If all Asian fusion were so good I would never have had a moment's pause.