New York is one great noodle town. Chewy hand-pulled noodle soup? We got that. Nutty soba? Here you go. Bowls of pliant naengmyun? Done and done.
"What turns a good noodle dish into a great one? When the ingredients and techniques make you stop and wonder why you've never had something done this way before."
But my favorite bowl of noodles comes from somewhere newer. From a place that, to be honest, I was skeptical of from the start. Because when a restaurant attempts to do a "modern" take on Chinese cooking, it more often than not falls on its face. But Fung Tu, a year-old space on the eastern border of Chinatown, is doing something special. What turns a good noodle dish into a great one? When the ingredients and techniques make you stop and wonder why you've never had something done this way before.
That's how I feel about most of the food that chef Jonathan Wu is cooking up, be it a bowl of smoked mussels tossed in barely pungent scallion oil or greenmarket squash salads with a "ponzu" dressing that swaps out yuzu for the citrusy bite of Sichuan peppercorns.
In Fung Tu's early months, the cooking was studious and inventive but often too mild. Critics levied lukewarm assessments and the restaurant became more noteworthy for its affordable and excellent wine list. But Wu's been "adjusting to the New York palate" of late, ramping up flavors, seasoning, and spice, and at this point, the restaurant is firing on all cylinders—a forward-thinking, ingredient-loving Chinese restaurant that takes tradition seriously.
With no dish is this more true than the Egg Noodles with Chinese Sausage and Chopped Clam-Black Bean Sauce ($23). Fat, tender noodles are slicked with briny clams, charred sweet Chinese sausage, and seared funky garlic chives. Ginger, garlic, and scallions perfume every chopstick-ful, their crisp, pungent flavors tempered by the salty twang of dried black soy beans. The noodles are crowned with pickled onions and a drizzle of chili oil sweetened with chipotles and tomato paste. If every Chinese takeout joint served them, New York would be a better city for the trouble.
The recipe is a simple one, and easy enough for home cooks to adapt to their kitchens. What matters is the ingredients: meaty Manila clams that yield a complex broth; fine sherry instead of cheap salty rice wine; an abundance of extra virgin olive oil, what Wu describes as "Mario Batali-level stuff," to make the most of the aromatics.
None of this is about making Chinese cooking something it's not. It's about treating centuries-old ingredients and techniques with the care and finesse that budget-minded restaurants can't afford to do. And it's about recognizing a good idea when you see one. "This dish began with linguine and clam sauce," Wu explains. Salted, fermented black beans were a natural next step, a reference to the classic Chinese dish of clams in black bean sauce. And from there, "Chinese sausage just fit in." Garlic chives, too. And that chili oil. "I'm real proud of that chili oil." (You'll see why in a minute.)
Here's how it's all done.
Wu gets his clams from the Lobster Place, not Chinatown, and he's partial to these meaty Manilas. They come in pretty clean, but Wu, who's retained the habit he picked up cooking at Per Se, purges them in salt water to expel any threat of grit.
On goes a snowfall of kosher salt, which gets tossed with the clams.
Then he covers them with water and lets them sit for an hour.
When time's up, he drains the clams and sweats a shallot in some oil.
Then in go the clams—about five pounds, enough for 12 servings of noodles.
They're followed by half a bottle of Lustau amontillado sherry. Sherry's savory, saline, and nutty flavors make it the perfect substitute for Chinese rice wine, and Wu prefers to cook with bottles he likes to drink. That's totally true of the Lustau and less so of commercially available rice wine in the States, almost all of which is salted and sold as cooking wine.
"You can really taste the sherry in the end," says Wu, and the amontillado's caramelized almond notes bring incredible depth to the clams.
The clams steam for five to seven minutes. Then it's time to pick out the meat and chop it fine, by hand.
Meanwhile, the clam broth—"this stuff is gold, you have to save it all"—gets poured through three strainers into a holding bin, to make sure no grit makes its way into the final sauce. Then in go the chopped clams.
Talk about a "trinity" of aromatics in France and you'll find mirepoix, two parts onion to one part each carrot and celery. In Louisiana, carrots are swapped out for green pepper. And in Guangdong Province in southern China, the aromatic trinity is garlic, scallions, and ginger.
These aromatics—only the scallion whites here, and double the amount of ginger to cut through the fat and spice of the noodles—get chopped by hand, then minced in a food processor.
They'll make their way into the clam sauce, but first Wu blooms their flavors in a generous pan-ful of olive oil over low heat. Like the sherry, olive oil joins the dish because it's a higher quality product than a Chinese equivalent available in the U.S., and that builds extra layers of flavor into the final dish.
Once the aromatics smell...aromatic, in goes a fistful of black beans. These hard, wrinkled legumes are actually soy beans, and when dried, salted, and fermented, they take on a heady, gnarly, and delectably savory taste that soaks into whatever they're cooked with. Clams love black beans.
The aromatics are cooked for just a couple of minutes until they lose their harsh bite. Then Wu lets them cool completely in the fridge before adding them to the clam sauce.
For all this talk of gussied-up ingredients, there's one classic Wu can't let go: Twin Marquis pre-cooked egg noodles, the kind you can find in any Chinese grocery in the city.
"We tasted so many noodles, but in the end we stuck with these. They're what my mom uses, and they're what I bought for family meal for the staff." And their neutral flavor and soft texture is the perfect foil for all these punched-up ingredients.
The noodles are cooked before packaging, so they only need a few moments in hot water to soften up. Then they get shocked in an ice water bath to stop cooking.
Wu and his team pack seven to eight ounces of noodles in a pint container and top them with some julienned Chinese sausage and garlic chives, a ready-to-go "kit" for whenever an order comes in.
Putting it All Together
All of this prep is done ahead of service. When an order comes in, all the noodles need is a quick stir fry in a blazing hot wok.
Wu heats up the wok with a splash of oil and tosses in a kit of noodles, with the sausage and garlic chives going in first. They cook instantaneously, so Wu starts tossing the noodles to slick them with oil and imbue them with some of the wok's smoky wok hei.
Then in goes the black bean sauce, which gets tossed just long enough to reduce in volume and cling to every noodle strand.
And that's it. The noodles plop into a bowl and get topped with some sweet pickled onions and chili oil.
Now, all a Chinese chili oil needs is a neutral-flavored oil and some dried chilies. Wu starts with that, but adds smoky chipotles, fresh chilies, garlic, confit shallots, fermented black beans, and tomato paste. The result is a voluptuous condiment full of sweet and savory flavors—over-the-top good on its own and perfect as a finishing touch on the noodles.
There it is. Don't you want to dig in right now?