Let’s get real: Tu is cooler than me, and odds are it’s got one up on you. That’s okay though. As we all know, being seen with someone a little out of your league just improves your own mystique.
And Tu is all that. Unabashedly hip, chic, and confounding, the menu reads somewhere between temptress and riddler: Griddled provolone. Beef + Kimchi. Eh … Mezgeuldi? Huancaina? Fideos?
Don’t overthink it as the fancy words are just a warm up to some wonderfully WTF flavors. For instance, the crudo ($12). My notes imply induced hallucinations of some sort: “If fish was a dessert. My brother’s childhood cream cheese and jelly sandwich fetish. Goddamn. Is that calamansi? Does anybody really know what time it is? This is some kind of voodoo magic.”
Made of cubes of king mackerel, guava, and aged manchego, then tossed with habanero and topped with ‘cheese ice’ and (guessing) mermaid tears, this is another one of those things I’ll try — and probably fail — to recreate forever. It’s citrusy and savory, while simultaneously airy and sweet. That stated, it makes next to no sense why it works, which is fine by me.
Similarly, the agua chile ($12) is another unicorn of a dish. Vinegar-forward, it’s made with anchovy-sized aged kombu beef slices, tomatillo water, and bonito mayo. Topped with red onions, jalapeño, and cilantro leaves, it’s flavor-packed. Still, those looking for volume-based bang for one’s buck are not going to be happy about the six Lilliputian slices of meat.
Sticking with a theme and cut like hasselback potatoes, the two tiny beets ($11) are topped with a garlicky chimichurri. Served alongside a crisp, melty slice of griddled provolone, it’s an elevated take on a homey and comforting dish. Moreover, it’s refreshing to see beets celebrated as a savory vegetable.
If you’re thinking it would be nice to have something more to pair with that cheese, be aware the daily bread (“changes daily, per person, just ask”) is a literal half-slice and costs $4 per. Although I appreciate Tu looking out for my waistline, a tiny bit more — say, the whole slice? — would be nice.
On that note, when I asked for bread, the server turned heel and responded, “That’s more dollars.” OK, I probably misheard her, but I also wonder if it wasn’t a Freudian attempt to alert me to the restaurant’s 2.5 percent ‘convenience fee’ brought to light by Post & Courier‘s Feb. 8 investigation. Tu has apologized for the incorrectly labeled fee and Chef Josh Walker told City Paper in an email, “it was never our intention for the surcharge to be unclear. It’s important to me that everyone realize this was a mistake and we are very upset it was not formatted correctly.” Tu has since nixed the fee altogether and we can’t help but feel the incident was more of an honest error than a Manafort-style deception.
Tu itself is one hell of a quirky space. The main dining room and bar area have been added on to a renovated row house on Meeting Street. The house itself holds two distinct dining rooms: One with a large table and ideal for groups, the other with black walls and dim lighting, perfect for your clandestine rendezvous. The main space is hip and Kubrick-esque, with orange crushed velvet banquettes, black silverware, and retro Japanese album sleeves holding the drink menus.
Cocktails, in kind, are unique. The Silent Partner ($12) finds dry rye mixed with apertifs and lemon in a citrus-forward mix that is bitter, yet refreshing. The Slow Gold ($12) blends cachaca with ginger beer and guava liqueur with crisp, snappy results. It’s also served in a bumpy yellow tumbler made of Depression glass and rarely sighted outside your grandma’s house.
Service is warm and efficient, and the individual dishes are brought to the tables by the chefs, a nice touch. Overhead the music was at first trippy and atmospheric, until abruptly switching to ’80s hits like Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Don’t try to pin Tu down. She’s a free spirit and she’s not having any of it.
Should you arrive with any, park your pierogi ($12) expectations at the door. A far cry from Poland, Tu’s six wonton-style dumplings are filled with beef, drizzled with a goat cheese sauce, and dotted with crunchy kimchee nests and bits of pork belly. Faced with a fourth plate of notably diminutive proportions, my dining companion suddenly inquired: “Can we go get something to eat when we’re done?”
The pastrami ($12) first hits the palate like an everything bagel, with distinctive notes of onion and garlic, plus poppy and sesame seeds. The bits of corned beef are mixed with pickled cabbage and then topped with buttermilk mustard oil and pickled cucumbers. As quirky as it is familiar, the combination feels like a fusion of Moscow and the Upper West Side.
Typically comfort food, Tu’s chicken fried steak ($15) is decidedly more quixotic than quaint. The beef is prepared with a crisp, garlicky breading and drizzled with huancaina, a creamy Peruvian sauce made with mild cheese. The interweb indicates it’s traditionally served over slices of cold potatoes, which likely explains the cubes of such on top. Mixed with sliced black olives, celery, and carrots and surrounded by deviled eggs it’s … weird. My notes are similarly so, observing “it’s like Paddington Bear (presumably the only Peruvian I could think of) and the 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook had a baby.”
Last, but not least, the description on the ribs ($15) is deceptive, defined as “Dr. Pepper, mustard, snack mix.” What arrives is plated almost exactly like a Japanese okonomiyaki pancake, but tastes a bit like Indian food. The ribs are tender and flavorful, topped with a delightful mix of crunchy bits, including whole coriander pods. Moreover, much like everything about Tu, it’s at once practical and playful.
Unorthodox and a bit zany, yet still undeniably cool, Tu is both exactly and nothing like you’d expect from the folks who brought us Xiao Bao Biscuit. Bring an open mind and a sense of adventure, and enjoy the ride.