WUJI Restaurant: Traditional Chinese-American cuisine is new again
At its debut opening in Scarsdale, New York, WUJI reinterprets and reinvents the Chinese food we all loved.
The recently opened WUJI Restaurant wraps around a street corner in suburban Scarsdale (Westchester County), New York, one block away from the busy train station that shuttles commuters to and from Manhattan. Tables outside allow for al fresco dining, and red bicycles with baskets line the curb ready to deliver take-out orders.
The inviting interior décor is reminiscent of an art gallery with striking portraits of 13 huge Buddhas covering the walls with oversized Chinese Porcelain vases placed above the bar. The attractive L-shaped room seats 100 people. A long table besides the bar allows for communal seating for solo diners or friendly conversation for those who want to meet neighbors.
WUJI isn’t just another Chinese restaurant because the goal of its creators, the MAAC Hospitality Group, is lofty: To preserve the traditions of Chinese-American food and update them to conform to contemporary sensibilities. We were intrigued when we received an invitation to be among the first diners to experience “fresh, modern Chinese food” at WUJI, but didn’t quite know what to expect.
Preserving and updating a tradition
Like many New Yorkers, when I was growing up (in Queens, New York) my family always looked forward to an inexpensive, greasy Cantonese-style Chinese dinner almost once a week, usually on Sunday, and always on Christmas. The food was served family-style in stainless steel serving dishes with covers, which we heaped onto the characteristic blue-and-white china that matched the teapot on the lazy Susan at the center of the round table. It was hard to keep track of how much we were eating so we usually fell asleep as soon as got home with an MSG hangover.
Over the years as food tastes have changed and boomers have become more health-conscious, most of the Chinese restaurants in the area where we live now either morphed into Asian-fusion ones or disappeared entirely. What remains are a few hole-in-the-wall takeout places with very mediocre American interpretations of Chinese cuisine.
When we were introduced to the man behind the WUJI concept, Jody Pennette of the MACC Hospitality Group, he told us that while there were once 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. (more numerous than McDonalds), the cuisine “was increasingly becoming extinct” outside of large cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Aside from P.F. Chang’s, an international mega chain of hundreds of restaurants, many are closing up as the next generation of family entrepreneurs migrates to new careers.
Pennette came up with the idea of “farm-to-wok Chinese cuisine” that befits the modern palate, the Scarsdale restaurant being the first in what he hopes to expand to a brand of restaurants in suburbs across the U.S.
The Chinese chefs, trained in Hong Kong, have been charged with reinterpreting traditional recipes, transforming them into “healthy-ish” Chinese food by emphasizing fresh local, organic seasonal ingredients. Think natural: organic chicken, pasture-raised pork, grass-fed beef, sustainable wild-caught fish, noodles made from scratch, and organic vegetables.
Many of the dishes are served in half (small plate) or full-size versions. Some of the signature dishes include less-greasy-than-eggrolls vegetable spring rolls with sweet chili dipping sauce; tender, moist, organic Heritage pork spare ribs with honey-plum glaze; Peking duck carved tableside and served with plum sauce and mu shoo pancakes; and spicy fried rice served with a soft egg on top.
We loved the inventive reinterpretation of Chinese-American cuisine that pays homage to the past, retaining authentic recipes and tastes. The broken shards of Chinese Blue Willow china displayed on the wall speak to the creativity of repackaging old treasures (in this case culinary ones) and turning them into something new.
Pennette, who once worked as a chef, has been involved in the startup of more than 300 restaurants over his career but this is the only one in which he’s invested his own money.
“I think the idea has legs,” he says.
Another WUJI is slated to open in Larchmont, New York over the next few months and one will open in Westport, Connecticut in the winter of 2016. All of the locations are within walking distance of train stations in upscale suburban areas that are dense with foodies.
IF YOU GO
WUJI Restaurant, 2 Chase Road, Scarsdale, NY
To read more about the history of Chinese food in America, see these two excellent articles:
- On Serious Eats: Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese Food History of New York
- On Slate: A Short History of the Chinese Restaurant
Previously on More Time To Travel
Disclosure: Our meal at the WUJI opening was hosted but any opinions expressed in this post are our own.