909 20th Ave. S. 515-2742
Dim sum served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
There are dozens of Chinese restaurants in the Middle Tennessee areaperhaps more than any other ethnic category, save for Mexican. Still, people are always asking, "Does Nashville have a good Chinese restaurant?"
How you regard Nashville's Chinese restaurants depends on your frame of reference. If you have lived in or visited a city with a Chinatown, then no, Nashville does not have a good Chinese restaurant. If you have never been exposed to genuine Chinese food, then sure, there are some decent Chinese restaurants herethough none that I would recommend as good.
Persistent diners, the ones in search of authentic Chinese food, will usually follow up with another question: "Well, do any of them have dim sum?"
The negative response to that question is another pretty good indicator that there are no truly good Chinese restaurants in Nashville. In larger cities, a Chinese restaurant ain't worth its soy sauce if it doesn't offer dim sum on Sundays.
Dim sum originated in Canton, where businessmen traditionally used teahouses as their offices, putting in long days around the old teapot. Taking care of business can work up an appetite, so teahouses began preparing and serving snacks. Dim sum, which translates to "touch the heart," consists of small plates of items like steamed dumplings and buns, chicken wings, spareribs, fish and vegetables. Traditionally, in restaurants that serve dim sum, the food is kept warm in small covered metal pots and wheeled about the dining room on carts. The cart stops at the table, the server displays the selections for perusal, and diners point at what they want, which is placed before them. At the end of the meal, the server calculates the bill based on the number of empty dishes at the table. Throughout the meal, diners typically drink copious amounts of hot tea from small china cups.
For a brief while, Orchid Thai restaurant in Cool Springs served dim sum, though it wasn't quite good enough to warrant a Sunday-morning commute to Williamson County. Now Nashvillians have the chance to try dim sum again, thanks to a new restaurant whose menu travels across all of Asia, from China to Thailand and Vietnam to Korea and Japan.
Chu opened this past February after a six-year incubation period. The name is not a verb, but an adjective, meaning "in the middle," which describes its location between two established restaurants on 20th Avenue SouthBound'ry and South Street, both also co-owned by Jay Pennington. Other cities are well-acquainted with "pan-Asian" cuisine, but Chu is one of the first in Nashville to serve such offerings, with signature dishes from various Far East countries interpreted by executive chef Theresa Everett. I haven't yet had dinner at Chu, so can't speak for the experience, but I couldn't resist the chance to try dim sum there.
As befits a restaurant that was so longand so expensivein the making, Chu is visually arresting, with dining on different levels and on two floors, though Sunday dim sum is not served on the second floor. General manager Robin Lee repeatedly told us that the restaurant is best viewed in the eveningparticularly under special-effects lighting that is an integral part of the lookbut we didn't miss any drama on a stormy Sunday afternoon. We liked the high banquette table near the first-floor bar where we were seated; the cushions were much appreciated by the shorter members of our party. The subdued lighting, rich colors and sound of running water from the two-story, curving waterfall was quite soothing; anyone suffering the aftereffects of too much fun on a Saturday night would find Chu a delightful spot for gentle reentry.
As in Chinatown restaurants, carts filled with different types of dim sum are wheeled about to each table. Unlike most restaurants in Chinatown, the servers are American, so there's a lot less likely to be a language barrier, meaning that they can offer helpful descriptions to people not familiar with dim sumincluding some unique interpretations created by Chef Everett. The duck Benedict, for example, is a marriage of dim sum and typical American brunch food: a poached egg on a soft wonton wrapper with a slice of duck and a sweetish sauce.
The dim sum menu changes weekly, but diners can count on dumplings and buns, spareribs, chicken wings or thighs, and a variety of fish and shellfish, such as the delectable bite-sized morsels of miso-orange glazed sea bass we had. We loved the lotus buns in particular, which were filled with sweet potato. I was disappointed that there were no vegetable dishes on the Sunday we visited, though a menu I'd picked up from a few weeks before offered Szechuan eggplant, wrinkled green beans and fiery baby corn, along with other intriguing items like fried taro cake, hot and sour seafood bowl, and sesame potato nest with fried egg. In truth, I would have preferred any of those to the nigiri, sashimi and sushi rolls presented on marble slabs the day we were there. If I'd wanted sushiwidely available in Nashville these daysI would have gone to a sushi restaurant. As far as I know, there is only one place to get dim sum.
If you have never have had dim sum, but are fond of Chinese food, then by all means try Chu. Or if you're just looking for a Sunday brunch alternative to eggs Benedict, omelets, pancakes and waffles, Chu is worth a trip. It won't set you back much: seven of us sampled nearly everything, including the desserts, as well as a Bloody Mary and four Kirins, and the tab was just $133.
Will Chu fulfill your craving for good Chinese food? Not entirely, but it touches my heart that chef Everett is stepping out of the box and taking a chance that Nashvillians will trade their ham and biscuits for steamed pork buns.