China Live, Chinatown
Opening on March 1st, China Live is possibly the most ambitious Chinese food concept in the country… ever. And if its first phase is any indication, it was worth the wait, a game-changer in Asian food, which was early on dubbed the Eataly of Chinese food. The first floor restaurant, retail market, bar and tea-centered Oolong Café opened last month, with the other floors (fine dining Eight Tables restaurant and more cocktail/spirits bars) slated to open in the coming weeks.
Founder/executive chef George Chen (who I interviewed a couple years ago in this Food Republic feature on Chinatown and the history of Chinese food in SF/US) has been working on this massive opening the past few years alongside his wife, Cindy Wong-Chen, with AvroKO on the design side and a whole team of people bringing the 30,000-square-foot space to life.
From the striking blue and white tiles of the Oolong Café (serving many teas sourced from farmers in Taiwan and China) to the refined Chinese cookware, ingredients, food products, cutlery and plateware sold in the Retail Market, China Live is already a food lovers’ destination.
Eat This: Visiting the bustling Market Restaurant and Bar Central — the main focus downstairs — it already feels as if this has long been a crucial part of Chinatown, a rare source (alongside the totally different but also modern Mister Jiu’s nearby) for modern Chinese food reinvented yet true to Chinese and Taiwanese roots. Seated at individual or communal tables, you are surrounded by cooking stations turning out dumplings/dim sum, salads, Chinese charcuterie and barbecue, noodles, seafood, soups, wok stir-fry and sweets.
Right off the bat, stone oven-roasted Peking duck — glazed in seasonally-changing sauce, currently kumquat (3 pieces: $14.00, 5 pieces: $19.00) — is a stunner couched in crispy, light sesame bread pocket. The duck is a definite highlight, as is the dim sum in general, including sweet-savory cha siu bao (baked pork buns — $9 for 3); juicy sheng jian bao (pan-fried dumplings — $9 for 4); spicy, succulent Sichuan “Working Hands” wontons/dumplings ($9 for 10), lush in sesame butter and peppercorn-chili broth.
Vegetables are a bright reflection of the season, whether a Chrysanthemum Ten Ingredient Salad ($12), a mountain of seaweed, cilantro, bean sprouts, jicama, carrot, or one of the seasonal market vegetable dishes like delicately crisp and perfect snow peas, lily bulbs and black mushrooms ($16) in a light, umami-laden abalone sauce that threatens to “steal the show.” Splurge on 2 1/2 lb. live Maine lobster Cantonese-style or Sichuan fermented rice and chili-style ($60 each).
Pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez (formerly Absinthe, Citizen Cake) is crafting imaginative desserts (and will take them to the next level once the upscale Eight Tables opens upstairs), like sesame soft serve ice cream in Taiwanese-style mango snow/shaved ice ($9), accented with crispy and gelatinous treats for texture.
Drink This: Director of beverage Duggan McDonnell (who has been a pioneer in the SF drink world for over a decade) created menus of international wines, saké, beer, Malaysian style cold brew coffee, custom Marin kombucha and cocktails that showcase Chinese ingredients and high end spirits. And that’s all before the upstairs bars open, which he will also oversee.
Trying most of the initial cocktail menu at Bar Central downstairs (the drinks are available at the bar or in the Market Restaurant), initial favorites include Shanghai Kelly’s Bad Bad Pisco Punch ($13) — showcasing Duggan’s Encanto Pisco (I made pisco with Encanto in Peru in 2013) and Plantation Pineapple Rum — in San Francisco’s ultimate classic cocktail, given a colorful spin with blue curacao, an Asian angle with gunpowder green tea, balanced by fresh lime and pineapple, orange bitters and ginger beer. In addition, the peppermint, yerba maté herbaceousness of Honey On the Southside ($13), a twist on a classic Southside cocktail, is a refresher of Apóstoles Yerba Mate Gin, lemon, matcha tea honey, muddled peppermint and basil, topped with seltzer. – The Perfect Spot (04.15.17)