Xian wei is Chinese for umami, which is also the flavor focal point of 19-year-old chef Luther Bob Chen’s underground restaurant Xian Wei. Chen studied at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park where he learned French techniques. He’s cleverly applying his interests in the modernist movement (foraging, deconstruction, layers) to traditional Chinese cooking that nods at regions from Anhui to Xinjiang.
A secret meal at Xian wei takes place at a private residence somewhere in San Pedro with a maximum of eight guests per seating; a wine pairing is optional. Xian Wei’s website provides all the information on how to score a seat at the table.
Some of the diminutive dishes are as basic as a sweet and airy 30-second microwave sesame cake smeared with intensely salty fermented bean curd. The plate of Sichuan pickles is a study in textures when eaten in one bite as directed, combining the fresh snappiness of daikon and cucumber with the slick crunch from the braised wood ear mushrooms. Chen’s take on xiao long bao envelopes Berkshire pork with Chesapeake crab meats. It’s also smoked with mesquite.
Spotlighting the Anhui province was a “tofu” dish which was actually steamed egg. Fresh quahogs and cilantro foam sit with the “tofu” while awaiting a tableside dousing of savory bean curd broth.
A Guangdong favorite, white pomfret, was first presented to the table as a whole fish then returned to the kitchen for plating. This light fish packed surprising heat thanks to a spicy green sauce of serrano, habanero, and red chile.
The lamb chops, grilled Chinese street food-style were a highlight. Cooked perfectly rare, the meat’s subtle gaminess and succulent smokiness harmonized well with the brushed Sichuan bean paste and cultured soy yogurt.
I’ve experienced modernist cuisine, and I’ve eaten traditional Chinese food, but not both incorporated into one meal—until now. It tasted like the future of dining in L.A.