Wu Pops Up, Chinese-Inflected Brunch in Williamsburg
Up until recently, the term "Asian Fusion" has mostly been cause for disdain—overwrought, underdelivered dumplings and sticky-sweet-and-salty fish just don't make for good eating. But that's been changing of late, all for the better, as smart chefs are bringing together ingredients and techniques that pay off on the plate, not just the drawing board.
While Dale Talde has been pretzelizing pork dumplings and Danny Bowien is changing the way we look at pastrami, Jonathan Wu, a Per Se vet now working as a private chef, is taking a stab at brunch. His Wu Pops Up meals (yesterday marked the fifth) are neither overambitious nor cheap Chinesifications of American brunch classics; rather, they're smart, far more seamless unions of an American tradition with his Chinese upbringing. And for the most part they work well—at a fixed price of $18 for two courses that satisfy even if they don't stuff.
Reservations are taken in advance, so that once you arrive on-site (all the brunch meals have taken place at Pinkerton Wine Bar) it's a restaurant experience like any other, in a relaxed space with smart, cheerful service. While the brunch menu is always tweaked, it follows the same general formula: two small dishes for the table to share, and a choice from three larger plates for a second course.
Delicata and Kabocha Squash is, in a sense just that, in all its greenmarket-y simplicity. But the shower of garlic chives, minced century egg, and flakes of dried aged tofu are funky, savory counterpoints to the kabocha's sweet, custardy flesh. They're smartly chosen for their mix of fresh and aged flavors, and definitely more interesting than the usual dusting of cinnamon or sage that most Western squash is relegated to.
The bao dough on the Market Veggie Steam Buns isn't quite as fluffy as Chinatown's best, but it's light and well-executed nonetheless, and the stuffing of mushroom, cabbage, and daikon radish reaches deep into that savory void of Chinese savory steamed buns, and comes out successful. A soy-sesame dipping sauce is lively and fresh, good on the squash as well.
Though Wu was born in Connecticut, his family hails from China, and his food borrows from their culinary traditions—through the lens of what his mother would cook for him growing up. So if the Sesame Flatbread with Pork Belly isn't a traditional take on the Chinese pancake, the cumin dusting on the meltingly soft pork still feels right, and the crisp-chewy, almost doughnutty texture of the slim pancake is admirable. It comes with a crisp cabbage salad dressed with a lightly sweet and salty proto-mayo, an emulsion of poached egg with a nutty vinaigrette. Pickled cranberries add punch and double back towards Western territory.
He does a take on congee, Anson Mills Rice Middlins (middlins = grits made with rice). It comes with sweet corn purée, minced salted kale, moist shredded beef perfumed with five spice, and a soy sauce-stained egg. That's a lot to take in for a simple bowl of congee, especially since our porridge arrived with some chalky rice grains, but small bites with all the components together had me thinking, yes, I would like kale treated as a Chinese green with my congee. Which is what Wu's brunch struck us as: thoughtful, and thought-provoking, but seamless enough to not distract from what's on the plate.
A Savory Chinese Crepe stuffed with tender egg, chili paste, and cilantro was less balanced than what we'd tried so far: the fillings called out for more attention underneath their starchy, dosa-like payload. But this too hit all our autumnal cravings right: crisp and warm with flecks of rice-egg matter within.
There's an of-the-moment seasonal clarity to this food, the likes of which I haven't experienced since our meal at Battersby in April, and though Wu's cooking may not yet be on that level of technical and flavor fluency, this is territory no other New York chef is treading in quite the same way.
Though $18 before drinks isn't exactly cheap, it's far from the baroque premiums of all-too-many brunch menus elsewhere. And here, in addition to all the smart fusion-ness of it all, you're getting a cook who knows how to nail his steamed breads, pancakes, and eggs—props to that where it's due.
If you're interested in an upcoming meal, check out the Wu Pops Up website for a schedule and reservation information. There you'll also find evidence of non-brunch meals to sign up for as well, with items like pork-stuffed cucumbers and riffs on roti canai.