Exploring Chinese Cuisine at Tànsuŏ
At Tànsuǒ, chef Chris Cheung pushes diners to explore various regions of Chinese cuisine—and strives for the perfect dumpling.
Written By: Erin B. Murray
Photographers: Emily Hall Dorio
The orbs that arrive on the plate are the same sandy-beige color of a fresh, crusty bagel. Each egg-shaped ball is coated in sesame seeds, slightly toasted, and set atop a stroke of reddish-brown sauce. These are sesame golden eggs, as conceived by chef Chris Cheung, who includes them on his menu at the newly opened Tànsuǒ, a restaurant that celebrates the cuisines of various Chinese regions and night-market street food, in the North Gulch.
What to order:
Toishan sui mai, $9
Sesame golden eggs, $11
Firecracker spring rolls, $10
Beef and broccoli, $24
Crispy spring chicken, $34
The dumplings are doughy, with a bit of crunch from the sesame, and unexpectedly sweet, yet filled with a savory mix of tofu and shiitake mushrooms. These 'golden eggs' are just a glimpse into Cheung’s mission at Tànsuǒ—in fact, the phrase, tàn suǒ, means “to explore.” And Cheung and his partner, chef Maneet Chauhan, have created a space that encourages that. “We and our diners are going on this learning journey together. I am introducing some ingredients and techniques [to Nashville], but, at the same time, they are receptive to exploring and learning about different things,” Cheung says.
The chef, who was born and raised in both Chinatown and Brooklyn, New York, and owns the East Wind Snack Shop in Brooklyn, is still based there and travels to Nashville each week. He met Chauhan years before she made plans to open her own Nashville restaurant, Chauhan Ale & Masala House, during a taping for an internet video series. The two stayed in touch, and, when Chauhan decided that Nashville needed a serious Chinese restaurant, she called on Cheung.
“East Wind Snack Shop happens to be two-and-a-half blocks from my house. It’s the easiest, quickest commute I’ve ever had. So, the next restaurant I decided to open is 800 miles away,” he laughs.
It’s also 15,000 square feet, with high ceilings protected by wood beams; cozy, blue-leather banquettes; and Chinese lanterns hung throughout—grand statements compared to the 18 seats in his dumpling house. “It is a crazy contrast,” he adds. The transition doesn’t seem to phase him, though, even after months of traveling back and forth. Instead, he focuses on what is happening in the kitchen, where he and his team are introducing this city to a higher caliber of Chinese cuisine.
His menu pulls from his experience—he grew up eating Cantonese cooking, was trained by a Hong Kong chef, and cooked in Shanghai. But he also admits to a love for Chinese-American food.
“I see a value and fun side in cooking those things,” he says, but adds that he also pays attention to “the creative, visionary stuff, too.”
A dish like beef and broccoli spells that out. Forget the thinly sliced beef tossed with American broccoli that you’ll find in a cardboard take-out box. Cheung’s version arrives on a platter, large chunks of braised short rib lined down the middle with the broccoli leaves, a Chinese version of the vegetable that more closely resembles kale, fanned alongside. Purple microgreens are sprinkled on top, and a house-made oyster sauce sits beneath. It’s a fine dining dish with takeout nostalgia.
“All of it is rooted in peasant cuisine. It is taking ingredients that no one wants and making it delicious. Chinese cuisine has a way of doing that,” he says. For those more familiar with Chinese-American, there are firecracker spring rolls and grandma’s chicken wings, both of which pack a powerful punch. There’s even a fried ice cream for dessert.
Cheung calls his three treasures rice, which is topped with char sui roast pork, Malaysian beef jerky, a spicy Chinese sausage, and a fried egg, a “common working man’s barbecue meat dish.” The barbecue, in this case, being Chinese in that it’s prepared fresh, not the 12- to 16-hour Southern version we’re used to—the char sui, though, is quickly slid through a wok, taking on a hint of smoke from the wok itself. The chef takes pride in both of his bird dishes: crispy spring chicken and Peking duck. Both require a two-day process (the duck, which serves up to four, must be ordered in advance), that starts with brining, then hanging the bird to dry age it, then roasting it, bathing it in hot oil, and hand-carving it to order. The duck is served four ways, with scallion pancakes and sweet bao bread, while the chicken arrives with lettuce cups.
But the real mastery of Cheung’s menu might be the simplest starter: dumplings. Similar in style to what he’s been serving at the East Wind Snack Shop, his shu mai are open-faced, stuffed with pork and salted fish, and topped with a relish. They arrive in a steam basket with a seasoned soy sauce on the side.
“We focus on chasing the perfect dumpling,” he says, speaking about both East Wind and his new restaurant—but it’s a sentiment that seems to also explain his own daily effort, which is to take a step towards perfection with each new day. “It is in the chase. I don’t think you ever get to the point where you are really satisfied. You are always striving to make it better.”
121B 12th Ave N; 615-782-6786; tansuonashville.com