When “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” gives way to “Hey, the food is great,” you know you’ve got a concept. Jody Pennette, co-owner of new WUJI in Scarsdale, ought to know: he’s opened 315 restaurants worldwide, but WUJI is the only one he owns. Standard American Chinese made over with local, organic ingredients, Hong Kong-trained chefs, and date-night decor, at a price that won’t leave you feeling hungry an hour later? It’s about time.
“Chinese food used to be the way to treat your family to a nice dinner with all the trappings of a fancy restaurant. Now it’s the Cheesecake Factory,” says Pennette, founder of cb5 Hospitality Consulting and co-author of Idiot’s Guides: Starting & Running a Restaurant. “I’m thrilled to be re-imagining the modern-day version of the family Chinese restaurant.”
Family-style dining here means no TV: “If I can’t entertain someone for an hour, I’ve failed.” It also means training servers to place the dish on the table before announcing what it is: “Otherwise, someone goes, ‘I’ve got that.’” True enough.
But WUJI is not only group friendly, it’s a grownup night out. Candles flicker at a banquet-length table, antique vases tower behind the bar, a commissioned series of museum-quality photos of Buddha statues line the walls. A back wall hung with shattered Blue Willow china is a visual mission statement. Outside, eye-catching delivery bikes with bright red insulated containers wait to deliver food in green packaging.
“What we really need is signature dishes that get under your skin,” reflects Pennette. To that end, the next time I want spare ribs, I’m coming here, for heritage pork spare ribs with honey plum glaze; ditto for General Tso chicken, here called Chef Joe’s in honor of Chef Zhou Guang Zan. WUJI uses organic chicken, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, cage-free chicken and eggs, and local and organic produce whenever possible; seafood adheres to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch standards. There’s no added MSG, which is “the most honest proclamation a Chinese restaurant can make,” Pennette explains, as “the sodium salt of glutamic acid, monosodium glutamate (MSG), is present in a fermented state in soy sauce. Guests can request tamari, which is a gluten-free version of soy sauce.”
Big hits were in no short supply: char siu (barbecued pork with pickled cucumber), tender Peking duck with all the trappings, crispy-skin Cantonese roasted chicken, shrimp wrapped in hydroponic Boston lettuce, zesty tangerine beef. Of two fried rices, lobster fried rice had a good amount of lobster on one visit and almost none the next; spicy fried rice with a sunny-side up egg on top is a must-try signature dish. Sundays they’ll be trying dim sum. Drinks are as polished as the food: organic house-made soda in flavors such as green tea and vanilla cream; white ginger-pear iced tea in glasses stuffed with orange slices and mint; retro cocktails. Blooming tea unfolds before you in a glass pot.
Regarding dessert: “I’ve still got to crack the dilemma of a modern, relevant equivalent of the fortune cookie,” said Pennette. On a second visit, they appear to have figured it out—skewers of thinly sliced fruit (starfruit, Asian pear, pineapple) with caramel dipping sauce.
Look for more WUJIs in Larchmont and Westport soon, and eventually in other suburban markets near train stations and high-rise housing. Is there any magic number beyond which one is perceived as a chain? The unhesitating answer: “20.”
2 Chase Rd