Two nights after Christmas and all through the house: “no more turkey nor pasta or even lobscouse!” (a Scandinavian meat stew). “Let’s go for Chinese food” seemed to be the cry along Federal Hill last week, as parties of six, eight, and even 13 arrived at MuMu Cuisine for supper, as did our modest party of three. Though it took a while for the kitchen to catch up with the unexpected throngs, the food was definitely worth the background din of noisy diners.
Sophia Cuyegkeng opened MuMu last June because she felt that Providence deserved a restaurant serving “authentic Chinese food.” Her son Henry Mu, who owns Lot 401, introduced his enterprising parent to Rhode Island (she also owns restaurants in Shanghai, Tokyo, and New York City). Cuyegkeng brought Chef Lao Sun, who has cooked for Beijing bigwigs, on board and together they have created a menu that offers familiar Chinese-American dishes along with ones that might be new to Rhody palates.
It was those we set out to try with a friend visiting from Princeton. We had heard great things about the steamed “soupy dumplings” (xiao long bao), which had broth and pork filling inside them, but we chose instead the steamed vegetable dumplings ($4.95). We were very pleased with the crunchy texture of the veggies inside them and with the fresh ginger in the dipping sauce. The scallion pancakes also came highly recommended ($3.95), and we were entranced with how non-greasy and flavorful they were.
It was at about this point in the evening when the hectic dinner crowd got to the staff at MuMu: our waitress forgot to give us the page listing 33 “authentic Chinese dishes,” as well as the more complete dim sum menu (15 instead of six items).
Nonetheless, we found some unusual dishes. Tea-smoked duck ($12.95) was a must-have. The smoky flavor of the duck was so strong that I could smell it when it was served. Bill and Yvette enthused about it almost as much as the three of us had over the tofu with shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots ($7.95). The thinly sliced tofu was quickly pan-fried so that the inside was like custard. The dark sauce of the shiitakes was exquisite.
Under the noodle listings, we were told that all contained pork except the chilled noodles with sesame sauce ($7.25). Curious to compare this to other sesame noodles, we ordered it. Maybe we’re all accustomed to the strong peanutty taste of “sesame” noodles in Southeast Asian restaurants, but the sauce seemed a bit too light. On the other hand, the firm round noodles with crisp julienned carrots and cukes, plus shreds of scrambled egg, was very refreshing and would be a great foil for hot and spicy dishes.
Surprisingly, though we are all fans of the latter, we ended up with nothing spicy. Even more surprisingly, none of us missed it a bit. The other two entrées we ordered were prawns in silky cream sauce with walnuts ($13.95), and braised whole fish with a miso, fresh ginger, and scallion sauce ($14.95). We were told the fish was Chilean sea bass, and it was beautifully presented, sitting on the dish as if swimming. It was draped with scallions, and portions of the fillet had been cut to more easily separate flesh from bones. It was still tricky to eat, but very tasty. The nine prawns were butterflied and sprinkled with bright red sweetened walnut halves. The creamy sauce was a bit lemony and delicious.
Though we did not have wine with the meal, my tablemates pronounced their cocktails quite good, and we indulged in dessert, a half-order of fried bananas with ice cream, both mango and green tea ($6.95).
The décor at MuMu is chic reds and blacks, akin to an Asian-style lacquered cabinet, with paintings of flamenco dancers (by Cuyegkeng herself) that capture the colors, if not the ethnicity, of the restaurant. There are booths along one wall, several tables that can be adapted for larger parties, and stools at the bar. White tablecloths and peach-colored napkins add to the slow-food atmosphere, as do the battery-powered votive candles.
The most alluring feature of MuMu, however, is the 33-item “authentic” menu that we missed. Sautéed peapod leaves, salt-and-pepper squid, shredded potato with chili pepper, fish stew with preserved mustard greens, Chinese cabbage with dried shrimp — the list goes on. Make sure to ask for this menu page, and the longer dim sum list, to enjoy an adventurous New Year.