The Art Of Pairing Wine With Asian Food Taken To New Heights At Eight Tables Restaurant In San Francisco
Pairing wine and food is often referred to as both an art and science. Wine seems to go especially well with local cuisine from the country in which it is produced, such as French or Italian wine with French or Italian cuisine. However, matching wine to Asian food flavors is often considered to be more challenging – especially dishes that have unique herbs, spices and flavors compared to traditional western fare. Yet at Eight Tables Restaurant by George Chen, hidden at the end of a small alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the food and wine team have reached new gastronomic heights in matching fine Chinese food with some of the top wines of the world.
“Most folks don’t think Chinese food goes with grape variety wines and that is a complete fallacy,” states Executive Chef and Founder, George Chen. Chen, an award winning chef who has created and operated 16 restaurants around the world, launched Eight Tables in 2017. His focus was to showcase the finest Chinese cuisine and give it the same respect it has in China, with Michelin-star quality cuisine and service. Given the Chinese love of fine wine, the restaurant includes a wine list with over 450 wines, as well as a large selection of fine spirits, such as whiskey and sake. Eight Tables has won several awards, including Time magazine’s 2018 list of the 100 best restaurants in the world.
he Chinese Private Dining Experience of Si Fang Cai
Eight Tables is designed according to the luxury Chinese dining tradition of ‘Si Fang Cai,’ which means a personal dining experience in a home with a special chef – also referred to as ‘private chateau cuisine.’ In China these ‘private restaurants’ are often in a hidden location, down a secret alley, and require a password to enter. Thus Eight Tables also requires a passcode to enter a locked gate, before a walk down a narrow alley, then taking a private elevator ride to a living room decorated with Chen’s family photographs and relaxing furniture.
Given that the number “eight” has special significance in China and signifies good luck, the restaurant only has eight tables, separated into eight secluded sections of the restaurant with soft lighting and round polished tables made of pale wood. The menu consists of eight courses ($250 per person) with an optional wine pairing for each course ($200 per person). Though closed for nearly a year and half during the pandemic, the restaurant reopened in mid 2021. The welcoming and professional staff of 15 to 20 employees wear formal suit and tie attire, and many were trained at Michelin-star restaurants in San Francisco.
oth the wine and food are seasonable and very creative. “We use pure ingredients and highlight the menu seasonally here,” explains Chen. “The creations are modern and interpretive but always with deep cultural relevance and cooked with integrity to the ‘mother’ cuisine.”
Wine and Food Pairing at Eight Tables Restaurant
Sommelier, Peter Steiner, works closely with Chen and Co-Chef Floyd Nunn, formerly with Quince and Benu, to create the seasonal wine pairing menus. “The wines are meant to bring out nuances in the food and vice-versa,” states Chen. “Food with some richness requires a wine with more mid-palate and good acid backbone to balance the flavors. Spicier foods hate heavy tannins, so a more aromatic, dry fruit (tropical), minerally wine is best. We change up the wines quite often, and Peter Steiner, our Somm, has my general approval to match the many evolving dishes with Chef Nunn’s creations.”
The first of the eight courses is the most visually stunning and famous. Called the ‘Nine Essential Flavors of Chinese Cuisine,’ or ‘Jiu Gong Ge’, it is nine small dim sum style courses, each with a different classic flavor: Salty, Sour, Sweet, Savory, Bitter, Spicy, and three major Chinese fragrances: truffle, rose shrimp and smokey noodle.
With this course, Steiner serves a Vintage 2013 Champagne Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru. “I always recommend a nice bubbly with the first course,” states Chen. “The disparate primary flavors are always a match with clean, yeasty bubbly acidity.” The pairing is excellent because the scrubbing bubbles, minerality, and fresh citrus of the Champagne both complement the different bites and cleanse the palate for the next taste. Steiner cautions, however, to try the bitter Chinese melon towards the end and before the sweet plum sauce date. Good advice.
The remainder of the seven courses are individual dishes, each artistically arranged and beautifully served, with Gregory Johnson, Service Captain, explaining the preparation and ingredients in each dish. Steiner then presents and pours each new wine pairing in elegantly designed Riedel and Zalto crystal wine glasses. The August 2022 menu included the following wine and food pairings:
Nine Essential Flavors of Chinese Cuisine with 2013 Champagne Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru, France
Egg FlowFLOW2 -3.7%er Sour with J.J. Prum Riesling 2020 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett, Germany
Steamed Monterey Squid with Huber 2020 Gruner Veltliner Obere Steigen, Austria
Porcini Mushroom Dun Dan with Sake Hamakawa Shoten ‘Hina’, Japan
Lapsang Smoked Squab with Joiseph BFF Blaufrankisch 2020 (Natural wine), Austria
Longevity Noodle with Melville Syrah 2018 Santa Rita Hills, California
Iberico Pork Char Siu with Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, CA
Jasmine Tea Rice Foaming Pudding with Royal Tokaji Furmit 2018, Tokaji, Hungary
Probably one of the most brilliant pairings was the fifth course with the squab which was dry aged, smoked, and prepared with a plum sauce and sticky rice. The tart berry flavors of the Joiseph BFF 2020 Blaufrankisch were a perfect foil to the savory duck, while the fruity notes of berry and plum united in a delightful marriage on the palate.
Steiner’s philosophy on wine and food pairing is quite artistic. “I go by feeling and instinct,” he says. “I taste a wine and I know exactly which of our dishes it will pair well with.”
Steiner demonstrated this by bringing a second bottle of wine to pair with the Iberico Pork Char Siu course. Though it was stunning with the original Spottswoode 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which brought out the savory and salty notes and fine texture of the pork, it took on a heighted level with a Weingut Brundlmayer 2018 Gruner Veltliner from Kamptal, Austria. Steiner explained that Austria is the largest pork consumer of any EU country, and their signature grape, gruner veltliner, with its complex spicy notes, pairs beautifully with many pork dishes.
Two Wine Collections at Eight Tables Restaurant
Eight Tables actually has two wine collections. The first is evident upon entering the restaurant, as a large glass case filled with bottles of rare wine rises up on the left side of the living room. The second collection is hidden in a temperature enclosed wine cellar closer to the kitchen. It includes more recent wines, including most of the wines served in the food/wine pairing.
“The rare wines were mostly my collections going back to the early 80’s,” explains Chen. “We didn’t have the budget in the beginning to source old library wines, so a couple of collector investors and I helped with bringing in consignment wines. Now all the wines are owned by the restaurant. Some highlights are 47 Cheval Blanc, older vintages like 45 1st Growth Bordeauxs and DRC. We have all the CA Cults as well. I love 70’s CA wines that with lower alcohol and extraction…guess why Napa won the Judgement in Paris.”
Pricing on the wine list ranges from $50 per 750 ml bottle for a Nieport, Rótulo, Dao, Portugal 2015 to $50,000 for the Château Cheval Blanc, Saint-Émilion 1947. Other high-priced jewels include $28,000 for a Romanée Conti, Grand Cru, Domaine de la Romanée Conti 1969 and $9,500 for Screaming Eagle, Napa Valley 2018. There are also 20 wine by the glass offerings, along with a wide selection of sake, whiskey and tea. Corkage fee is $75 per bottle.
Chen concludes with the wisdom of a chef who has worked more than 30 years in the restaurant industry and owns many classic wines. “I love older wines as they are simply more interesting….these wines are alive, and to taste history is one of the great pleasures of life. Close your eyes, and take a bite and then a drink, if it makes you smile….you’ve got a good match.” – Forbes (08.16.22)