The soft round bread between my fingers at Danlu could have been mistaken for an English muffin — until I took a bite.
Sandwiched inside were tender shreds of lamb moist with the garlicky braise of Shaoxing wine, aromatic cumin, and Sichuan peppercorns, lit with the herbal crunch of fresh cilantro, mint, and jalapeños. Was this the taste of the Fengjia night market in Taichung, Taiwan?
It was true, at least, to chef Patrick Feury's recollection of the trip he took with his Taiwanese business partner, Michael Wei, through several cities on the island a few years ago. Feury made such fast friends there he found himself cooking a day shift at a restaurant, then tending bar at night with American drinking games, delivering his hosts a Flip Cup boost in beer profits.
Some tourists take pictures. Cooks who travel gather flavors and techniques for their scrapbooks. For Wei, it was an impressive return to the home he left 40-plus years ago for America, where he's been a part of virtually every phase of Chinese cuisine's Stateside evolution, from the Cantonese days of Mandarin Garden (sadly just closed in Willow Grove), to the French Asian movement behind Yangming and CinCin, to the glitzier Buddakan-era Asia-plex called Nectar he opened in Berwyn 15 years ago with Feury as co-owner and executive chef.
As they planned a new project in Philadelphia with their other Nectar partners — Kenny Huang (a native of Guangzhou) and Henry Chu (from Hong Kong) – they knew some more authentic threads must be woven into the menu at Danlu (Mandarin for "nectar") to acknowledge the growing awareness of regional cuisines.
And for Feury, the Jersey-bred, Manhattan-trained chef who's been cooking Asian food for nearly two decades, beginning as executive chef at Susanna Foo, this trip to Taiwan was essential education. The Xi'an-style buns Feury learned in Fengjia are made fresh twice a day here and are key to the Taiwanese street-food concept at the heart of Danlu's snacky menu of sandwiches, noodles, and small plates, priced almost entirely under $12 with a student crowd at 36th and Market in mind. Some other Xi'an bun variations, stuffed with five-spice glazed chicken or red-braised pork with scallions, are among Danlu's best dishes, as are the steamed bao buns stuffed with tender pork belly and topped with crunchy peanut brittle and pickled bitter melon.
"You could say it's fusion. But the roots are still from Taiwan, modified to be more upscale than the night market," said Wei, 75. "To the end, I am trying to get Taiwanese cuisine into my restaurants."
After a decade-plus of lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorn madness and several years to master the delicate nip-and-slurp move required to devour a xiao long bao soup dumpling from Shanghai, the timing is right for Taiwanese flavors. Signature dishes from the island — itself a diverse melting pot of the post-Revolution diaspora whose American émigré families are now well into second-generation status — are showing up on menus across Philadelphia. Thai basil lends an herbal boost to three-cup chicken variations at DanDan, Empress Garden, and Han Dynasty. Entrepreneur Judy Ni has tapped her family's traditions for Baology, a sleek new fast-casual concept serving bao bun sandwiches, excellent dumplings, and ruen bing Taiwanese wraps to a diverse Center City lunch crowd on JFK Boulevard. Even fusion doyenne Susanna Foo has returned to her own Taiwanese roots for new inspirations at SuGa. Sweet Taiwanese five spice vivid with star anise flickers in delicate crusts of popular Taiwanese fried chicken, from Bubblefish at Ninth and Arch to tiny Lulu Cafe, a Taiwanese snack shop in West Philadelphia that serves the growing population of international students who have given rise to what I call Chinatown West.
It is to this dynamic corner of University City that Danlu has, after years in the works, finally landed with a high-style splash. And you can be forgiven for thinking you've stepped into the soaring sleekness of its suburban sibling. There's a contemporary grandeur to the bi-level corner room designed by New York's Jeffrey Beers: a triangular hall with wraparound mezzanine seats, tiger-striped wood tables, a crazy collage of hex tiles, silky fabrics, murals, and mod black metal tube lighting that dangles beside the huge banner of a nameless Asian beauty who surveys the room like Big Sister, waiting for someone to give her one of Danlu's boozy bubble teas. Or one of the sakes packaged for Japanese vending machines in juice boxes with a straw. Or one of the 20-plus craft beers on tap, many of them local (from ARS to Pizza Boy), that give Danlu its gastropub cred.
Considering how vast and shimmery this 134-seat room is, the menu is surprisingly limited to small plates. With just two traditional entrées to choose from, it feels more like a giant happy-hour grazing hall than the dinner destination it appears to be. And I believe that identity confusion is partially responsible for what Wei conceded was an uncharacteristically slow start for one of his restaurants.
It could be so much more given the quality of the food.
Aside from the sandwiches, the raw fish plates are a highlight, even if they stray (like much of this menu) beyond a strict Taiwanese theme. The tea-smoked yellowfin is dramatic, served beneath a cloche that releases a puff of smoke that lingers over sliced tuna crusted in Korean spice and a bed of kimchi with crunchy puffed wild rice. Seaweed-topped hamachi tartare benefits from Meyer lemon vinaigrette. A citrus-cured salmon crudo, meanwhile, harks back to Feury's gravlax days in New York.
Feury makes his Taiwanese sausage with five spice, subtly sweet and cinnamony, served hot over crispy Brussels sprouts leaves wok-fried with jalapeños, fish sauce, and rice wine. Spiced cashews add a fun crunch and richness to perfectly wok-fried bok choy, beech mushrooms, and tofu.
The crispy pot stickers are a great concept in theory. But the individual crackers attached to each dumpling are too thick compared to the paper-thin crepes of the original inspiration. More important, the edamame filling idea has been overdone. I expect more originality from a chef like Feury than to trot out a tired fusion trope popularized long ago by Pod, Buddakan, and Sampan. But that, along with a strangely unseasoned lemongrass wonton soup, was one of just a handful of dishes I didn't like.
Danlu's noodle dishes are strong, including the wide "he fun" rice noodle sheets tossed with Peking duck (from M Kee in Chinatown) moistened by a stock made from the bodies fortified with a sweet-and-sour pomegranate gastrique. Danlu's pad Thai is definitely off topic (Thai-wanese?) but it's a nod to Nectar's best-selling dish, and Feury says it's also amped up here for the city crowd with extra fish sauce funk, tamarind tang, and a firm punch of heat. With plump salt-crusted shrimp laced over top, it has my vote as one of the city's best.
More on theme, I also loved Feury's version of classic Taiwanese beef noodle soup, a deep, dark broth that's enriched with marrow and shaded with exotic star anise, cinnamon, and orange peel. Sublimely tender short rib is fanned over the broth and a nest of snappy ramen noodles, then dusted with ground chilies, a soy-poached egg, and delicate pea leaves for a deeply satisfying $12 meal.
More of that good Pineland Farm beef from Maine is wok-fried into double happiness with lightly crisped shrimp in a dark soy glaze tanged with balsamic and sesame that also brings a surprising heat. I liked the scallop dish even more, whose succulent Viking Village mollusks are nestled in creamy seafood foam beside exquisitely delicate shrimp wontons touched with ginger and curry.
It's delicious, and a fabulously fair value for just $19. But just as I'm revving up to really dig into this feast … that's it. There are no more entrées to choose from, as though menu development at Danlu stopped 75 percent of the way through the process. It's a surprise, considering how vast the menu is at Nectar.
The incredibly random desserts — a rye waffle with goat cheese ice cream?! Italian bomboloni fritters I last tasted when Feury made his Philly debut at Avenue B nearly 20 years ago — only add to the feeling that the second half of this restaurant concept is still in draft mode.