With more Michelin stars than New York City (a city with 10 times the population and nearly 7 times the size), San Francisco has been a giant and a pioneer in food and drink for decades, excelling in every sub-category beyond cities many times their size and jumpstarting farm-to-table, wine, craft beer and spirits movements literally decades ago. The city boasts a long list of superb upscale dining options, as does Wine Country down through the South Bay.
Given this wealth, we didn’t necessarily need another fine dining restaurant. But with the opening of Eight Tables in September 2017, it was immediately clear: we don’t have anything like this. In fact, neither does any city in the U.S.
Gunning for Michelin stars out of the gate, this is modern Chinese fine dining on a whole new level from Taiwanese-American chef-owner George Chen. If its early opening months are any indication, this one deserves accolades like Michelin.
Traveling over the years from San Francisco to Taiwan and China, Chen’s inspiration for Eight Tables largely came from invite-only dinners in China and Taiwan, and intimate Chinese supper clubs called si fang cai or “private room dishes” (read more about the movement and its history at Eater). In keeping with the spirit of hosting si fang cai supper clubs in homes and courtyards, the restaurant is modeled after an opulent Chinese home.
Down Kenneth Rexroth Place, an alley named after the brilliant San Francisco poet who wrote in Japanese haiku-style and consumed Chinese literature, an elevator whisks you up to the second floor, entering what feels like a luxe city apartment. In this space designed by the great AvroKO, one is immediately enveloped in soothing tones of white, cream, tan and grey, sleek with chandeliers and velvety chairs. The entrance is lined with Chen’s family portraits and a vintage record player emitting the tranquilizing sounds of jazz.
The cozy bar room is centered by a bar cart, manned by talented beverage director Anthony Keels (who for years put Saison’s cocktails on the map, drawing me in for the cocktails in addition to their excellent wine list). With a couple comfortable chairs in front of the cart, this is a wholly different kind of bar.
This bar gives way to the dining room, generously spaced out with walls and screens separating merely eight tables, some which are half-moon banquettes. Privacy reigns, though you still feel a part of the whole. Efficient and seamless as the service is, the staff exudes a gracious warmth, ensuring even the solo diner across from me was comfortably engaged.
I visited barely six weeks after opening, and Eight Tables’ food already stood above the four most recent fine dining experiences I’d had over the prior six weeks in other cities, some at one and two Michelin-starred restaurants. I’m reminded of the privilege of living in a city where quality is so high and competition fierce: to be less than delicious does not fly. Here, precise technique, forward-thinking menus, and always pristine ingredients from the bounty that is California are as imperative as taste. Chen and crew excel on all these fronts, sourcing many of their rare Chinese ingredients from a farm in Petaluma.
In true San Francisco form, the food is the star, even as the space, service, and drink play harmoniously and leave an impression.
There are a total of eight savory courses plus two desserts offering more than one “wow” moment. After a brilliant start of no less than nine artfully-presented amuse bouche, a colorful seafood dumpling arrives. The plump dumpling is filled with shrimp mousse, decadently topped with sections of sea urchin, trout roe, caviar-like finger limes and Russian golden osetra caviar.
A Chinese barbecue course offers five iterations of grilled meat, including char siu Iberico bellota ham and a succulent siu yuk bao-style sandwich of crispy skin pork belly on a toasted lotus bun, perked up with hot mustard. As the meal progresses, the last savory course was my ideal dessert: a heavenly Hudson Valley foie gras potsticker and black sesame-peanut mochi. Dessert courses — including a palate cleanser of fermented rice sorbet in goji berry vinegar — are blessedly balanced and light, paired with Madeira.
Wine pairings are poured by gracious sommelier Anthony Kim, who worked for years in drink at Morgans Hotel Group/Clift Hotel. While you might start with Perrier-Joulet Blason Rosé Champagne, later you’re poured local Haarmeyer Wine Cellars 2016 Petillant Naturel Chenin Blanc, a high acid Pét–Nat from a small, family producer. Paired with the Chinese barbecue course is a 2015 Cavicchioli & Figli ‘Col Sassoso’ Lambrusco, appropriately flirtatious and bold.
Part of the beverage pairing, Keels’ cocktails are not to be missed. Starting with just four cocktails, over initial opening months he’s expanding the menu. An initial drink, Lily Pond, is a Martin Miller’s gin-based cocktail garnished with nasturtium leaves, dramatically poured tableside in Chinese teaware. Enhanced by cucumber and forest water that includes watercress and sorrel, the drink is silky with lemon oil given its acidic structure from the plant matter, not from citrus.
Whimsy meets refinement in Chen’s forward-thinking yet still truly Chinese-Taiwanese concept and dishes. Wine pairings are thoughtful but unassuming, pulling heavily from France, Italy, and California but not offering the expected pours or varieties. Cocktails are exquisitely unique. The lavish yet reigned-in space evokes a visit to a wealthy friend’s home for a blissful feast. – The Perfect Spot (04.19.18)