“Unabashedly hip, chic, and confounding, the menu reads somewhere between temptress and riddler.”
Restaurant Tu, described by food critic Vanessa Wolf as chic, unorthodox, zany, cool, quirky, and confounding, seemed, in its year of existence, to encompass a wide range of emotions — everything in the world, even. That makes sense, given the meaning of the name ‘Tu’; “It roughly translates to everything under heaven, the rest of earth,” says co-owner and operator Joey Ryan. “All the stuff we wouldn’t do at Xiao Bao, we could do at Tu.”
The Tu team, comprised of Ryan, Josh Walker, and Duolan Li-Walker, announced on social media at the end of November that: “We learned a lot this past year & with this in mind and after a lot of consideration, we have decided to completely change course with Tu.” Enter: Tu. 2.0.
Tu’s genesis: the dairy dilemma
“It’s been a really fun and interesting year,” says Josh Walker. “At the end of the day we felt that Tu was a successful venture — Joey and I got into this because it’s what we love doing. We don’t view it as a business, we’re at the restaurant virtually every day.”
This all-or-nothing approach to running a restaurant, and cooking damn good food, is a mantra that Ryan and Walker wholeheartedly embrace, and one they’ve stayed true to since opening Xiao Bao in late 2012. By now, anyone who has spent more than a week in the city — the Times has been hip to Xiao Bao’s “unfussy approach” since 2014 — knows that when craving Asian comfort food, look no further than the converted service station on Rutledge Avenue. Six years ago though, even Ryan was skeptical about cabbage pancakes.
[content-1] “When we started Xiao Bao at first, nobody, myself included, would’ve identified a lot of the food we do from Asia as the kind of Asian food we know. Josh would talk to me about an Asian dish, we’d do testing, be going over the numbers, and Josh would just cook me something and I’d say, ‘what the fuck is this, this is incredible, I’ve never had this.’ Those dishes like okonomiyaki or shrimp toast, those little things, that represents why I got into and stayed in the business for 20+ years. It’s discovery and conversation.”
At Xiao Bao, Walker and Ryan home in on and highlight very specific regions of Asia — they’ll explore northern Thailand versus southern, Thailand compared to Vietnam. There’s never any fusion, says Ryan, and while the owners and staff have embraced the challenge of learning all the nuanced parts of Asia, there are inevitably times when they’ve wanted to explore a different kind of cuisine.
“One of the first trips Josh went on without me after opening the restaurant, he and Duolan went to Paris for a romantic getaway, he’s texting me pictures of dishes using dairy and he’s nerding out on dairy. We don’t do dairy. There are certain ingredients not in the scope of food in Asia,” says Ryan.
With the passion these two have for food, it’s no surprise that eventually, the creative juices would start flowing, and would not easily subside. “I always had this itch I couldn’t necessarily scratch with ingredients that wouldn’t normally happen in certain parts of the world,” says Walker.
“As we got older we’re like ‘let’s just open a restaurant and do whatever the hell we want,'” adds Ryan. “That was the vision of Tu.”
Out of the box
And Tu was born. With an ever-changing menu, Walker and Ryan could explore all those dishes they wanted to play with at Xiao Bao, sans limitations. In this beautiful, modern Meeting Street space, there was no box. Every ingredient, every flavor, every inexplicably delectable mashup, was fair game.
Described by one Yelp reviewer as ‘Twilight Zone-ish’ (in a good way), Tu was met with an overwhelmingly positive response, from both laypeople and critics. The dishes were peculiar and delicious, ranging from chicken fried steak to aguachile. But that didn’t make it any easier to explain the concept to inquisitive diners.
“It’s always been an issue that when we talked about Tu, [people would say] ‘oh what’s your second restaurant?’ we never had an easy answer to that question,” says Walker. “It’s really hard, to not have a box. That was a huge challenge.”
Ryan says that with Tu, they took on “the whole world.” If you flipped through Tu’s menus from the past year, one page could contain six cultures; the dedicated staff would instruct wide-eyed customers about the making of a dish, “there’s sauce from South America, and then this thing sort of reminiscent of North Africa,” says Ryan, or “let’s do this traditional Italian dish borrowing flavors from…Yemen.”
And in the background of all this world traveling noise, behind the Millennial pink bathroom and crunch wrap and cheese ice, was a quiet hum. Perhaps a vibration that had been there all along.
“If you’re paying attention and doing the right things you never have to make a choice, things just start to make sense,” says Walker.
The thing that started to make sense to both Walker and Ryan was the subcontinent of India.
“It’s like Tu is this amazing jump off, going from being constricted to Asia specifically to let’s glide all over the planet,” says Ryan. “We’re going from being in a beautiful glider being 3,000 feet above the ground and surveying all of the planet and we’re landing that thing in India for right now and focusing on this part of the world.”
A fine balance, sparked
Walker and Ryan had played around with a couple of Indian dishes on the menu at Xiao Bao over the years, and, as Walker started doing more research, he realized there were depths to plumb, nuances to nail.
“A year ago I would’ve said ‘no I can’t do an Indian restaurant, I love it, but it’s so intimidating,'” says Walker. “Not that I don’t feel that way now, but for me, over the past six months reading more and kind of getting into it became something I just really fell in love with.”
India’s “huge, complicated story” drew the two in, inviting them back into a box, albeit an expansive, thousands and thousands of years old box. “When I started to learn more about Indian cuisine, that same spark, that same love that I had you know, eight years ago, when I started really doing this, it happened again,” says Walker.
For Ryan the stories — “Delhi has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times and Pakistan was just a line drawn in the sand” — were compelling, as were the drink pairing options and naturally leavened bread.
“India provides this whole other sense of discovery for us,” he says. “He’ll [Josh] tell me about a dish or region of India and it’s exactly how I felt about China or Vietnam or Thailand or Korea.”
Ryan says they’ll be collaborating with Munkle Brewing to create a full-bodied trappist beer that will complement the spice of certain Indian dishes, and they’ll be going all in on the bread service.
“Bread is a huge undertaking,” admits Ryan, but, as Walker says, “Going to an Indian restaurant, good bread is one of the most exciting things.”
Tu 2.0 will be open for lunch and dinner Thurs.-Sat. starting in January, with a regular (however you want to define that) Tu menu offered until then, and a special multi-course dinner served on NYE. As for the bones of the place (a place that has been featured 100 times over on Instagram as a decor thirst trap), Ryan says there will be subtle differences — from the dinnerware to the smells. They didn’t mention the most-photographed bathroom ever, but we’re thinking/hoping it will still be pink (and photogenic).
Ryan says that after the announcement of Tu changing course, a few loyal customers were disheartened. “They said, ‘oh, really loved coming in here and not knowing what was going on.” Fear not, adventurous diners, “we’ll still blow your mind,” says Ryan. “India is a really big place, it’s as contagious for us as the staff.”
Could Tu 2.0 become Tu 3.0 in a year, morphing into yet another touchdown for that beautiful glider? Never say never, but for now, Walker and Ryan seem pretty smitten. “Are we Indian experts? Hell no,” says Walker. “It just became so much fun to cook this food.”