Hutong combines authentic Chinese flavors with Western cooking styles for a small fusion menu that works remarkably well.
The food is delicious and the atmosphere at the East Wilson Street restaurant is charming, intimate and cozy.
Part of that is because even though it has been 10 months since the city-county health department lifted its restrictions limiting how many people can dine in a restaurant at once, Hutong is keeping every other table empty. Placards say they are closed for social distancing.
While I was eating with my daughter and two friends, Zhao Zhao, who owns the restaurant with her husband and chef, Ziwen Wang, turned away a confused couple at the door. They didn’t understand at first why they couldn’t be seated when it looked like there were available tables.
Zhao, who was the lone server on our Friday night visit, had more business than she could handle as it was, and said part of why they continue with the social distancing measures is because of staffing issues.
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“We are trying really hard to find people,” she said later by phone. “We just couldn’t find anyone. We don’t know why.”
We felt lucky to arrive when we did. Zhao said they are operating at a 25- to 30-person capacity with six tables and four seats at the bar.
The homemade pot stickers ($8), six glistening pan-fried dumplings stuffed with pork, cabbage and onion, were top notch. The scallion pancakes ($4), also with six pieces, were crisp, subtle and non-greasy.
The tofu skin salad ($7) featured tofu made by boiling soy milk and skimming off the film that forms on the liquid surface, and drying it. Wood-ear mushrooms, celery and cilantro turned it into a salad that in some ways seemed like it should have been a hot dish instead of a cold one.
The edamame ($5) was the weakest link, overcooked and waterlogged. They were on the menu as “spiced shelled edamame,” but came in their pods. Zhao said the dish has five or six spices, but she didn’t know their names in English. We only detected anise.
Three lamb skewers ($10.50) were described as “prime Australian lamb leg,” seasoned with cumin. The grilled meat had a fantastic flavor, and was mostly tender, but with some gristle.
The Dan Dan noodle ($14) was a beautiful bowl with ground beef, peanuts, scallions and bok choy. It was described as medium hot, and I was worried my friend who doesn’t eat spicy food wouldn’t be able to share in this, but he surprised us by enjoying it.
Zhao said Ziwen makes his own chili oil, which adds a complex layer of flavor instead of pure heat.
The mild beef bone noodle soup ($16) had a broth as good as the best ramen, with thin slices of beef shank, cilantro, scallion, daikon radish and bok choy.
The ambiance is equal to the food at Hutong and that owes, in part, to Zhao’s 2014 degree in fine arts from UW-Madison. The stylish orange walls from the former Plaka remain, but new brick tile wainscoting adds a lot.
Plaka’s eight-seat, L-shaped bar got a paint job and is enhanced by elongated, frosted white lights with Chinese nature motifs that hang above it.
A TV over the bar was on without volume. It could have detracted from the mood of such an attractive room, but somehow it didn’t.
The thin, Asian-patterned cushions on the chairs are another distinctive touch, and the art on the walls is more deliberate than perfunctory.
Similarly, the music playing was unusual, moody and mellow. Zhao said they play Chinese folk music, some of it popular during their youth in Beijing in the 1990s and early 2000s, but she didn’t want to give her age.
The wine and beer list is small, like the food menu. The Silk & Spice red blend ($8) from Portugal was appealing, the Carmel Road pinot noir ($8) from Monterey, California, less so.
With Zhao so busy, our water glasses were neglected, but she was apologetic when we finally asked.
There are no desserts, but with our bill were wonderful milk candies with the consistency of a Tootsie Roll. They’re made by White Rabbit, a respected 79-year-old Chinese candy brand.
Memories of home
Hutongs are narrow streets or alleys found in northern Chinese cities. Beijing is particularly known for them.
Zhao said the building that houses the restaurant has a hallway that reminds her of a hutong.
The couple opened Hutong last September for a short time before a COVID spike convinced them to go to an exclusively carryout and delivery model. Two months later, they reopened their dining room.
Zhao wore a mask as she worked, something that’s also no longer mandated by the health department, and there’s a huge jug of hand sanitizer on a table in the entrance.
She said she has about 15 years of experience as a server, starting in high school in the restaurant her parents owned for 25 years, Mandarin Garden, in Door County’s Sturgeon Bay. They retired about seven years ago, she said.
Zhao said she met Ziwen in 2010 when she went back to her native China. Ziwen’s background is in urban planning, so Zhao said he knows about good dining. She said he’s also worked in big kitchens for five years.
“It’s not an ordinary Chinese kitchen with a big wok,” she said about Hutong, adding that Ziwen uses “his own logic into how to cook, cook healthy, and present everything well without artificial flavors.”
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