George Chen of Eight Tables revives the cuisine of the emperors of China

While Chinese food has been a mainstay in American culture for decades, a common impression of it persists: Chinese food is cheap, greasy, and low class. Not only does this misconception flatten the distinct regional dishes into one pan-Chinese cuisine, but it disregards centuries of rich gastronomic tradition. Chef George Chen, of Betelnut fame, is doing his part change that misconception by elevating Chinese food in his new San Francisco restaurant, Eight Tables. Inspired by a revival of si fang cai, a traditional intimate dinner in China, Chen sets out to bring the experience stateside.

The word ‘restaurant’ comes from the French restaurer, which means ‘to provide food for’, or quite literally, ‘to restore to a former state’.

George Chen, the executive chef of the San Francisco establishment Eight Tables, has taken that to heart, though his call-to-arms is to change the perception of Chinese culture by championing its cuisine.

“In Chinese culture, we love to eat,” Chen says. “For too long in the U.S., people have thought that Chinese food only comes in a white box with mystery sauce on it.”

It’s an obstacle that he’s trying to overcome. Located at the end of a long alleyway in San Francisco’s Chinatown-North Beach border is Eight Tables, his upscale restaurant inspired by the historic dining tradition of si fang cai. This ‘private chateau cuisine’ is an intimate, elegant affair, typically a many-course meal held in a private residence, which is why Chen has designed the restaurant to feel like a tasteful, beautiful home.

Twin stone lions guard the entrance against evil spirits, but serve as a welcome signpost to hungry patrons. A short ride up a red-doored elevator escorts guests into an elegant waiting room, where heirloom photos of Chen’s ancestors adorn the walls, and guests can imbibe a cocktail while reposing on plush velvet settees. The attention to detail continues into the dining room, where imprints of Chinese wedding lace cover the walls, and the rattan chairs and light wood paneling evoke the soft glow of old-world luxury.

The setting is exquisite, intimate and refined in a way that is rarely expected of Chinese establishments. Out of the 55 restaurants awarded one, two, or three Michelin Stars in San Francisco this year, only Mister Jiu’s serves wholly Chinese fare. Why is it that only one Chinese restaurant got the Michelin nod, when nine Japanese restaurants were awarded? What gives certain ethnic cuisines more star power than others?

In his book, The Ethnic Restaurateur, NYU professor Krishnendu Ray shows that Americans abide by a “hierarchy of taste”. There are high-status foods from countries with affluent immigrants, such as that of France and Japan, and then there are the low-status ones from the immigrant poor. Ray writes, “Some ethnic foods do better than others, which is related to the per capita income of the group.” In other words, perception of a cuisine is directly related to the socio-economic status of those immigrants who brought it over.

Ethnic food, then, is a way for Americans to denote cultural difference. It is a way to define the boundary of who “we” are, and who “others” are. If Chinese cuisine is ethnic and other, then so are the people of Chinese heritage. This is the challenge Eight Tables has taken on; make no mistake, it is still a challenge, despite its location in a well-established enclave of Asian and Asian American culture.

While this is a challenge for Chinese cuisine across all price ranges, it’s important to note that Chen’s answer to that obstacle will be done on a scale of privilege. At $225 a head, dining at Eight Tables can hardly be a weekly indulgence. But Chen’s aim with Eight Tables is to change cultural perception at the fine-dining level. To do that, he’s recruited stand-out talent for his kitchen.

Robin Lin emigrated from Taiwan to be Eight Tables’ chef de cuisine. A reserved, bookish man, Lin has the manner of an academic. He can—and does—wax poetic about the subtle differences between Szechuan peppercorns, the traditional way to pickle bitter melon, and the decades-long tradition of smoking skipjack from Taidong, Taiwan. I imagine he could go on forever, given the chance, if not for the more pressing duty of running a kitchen of this caliber.

“This is what people are missing,” Chen confides as Lin ends his long-winded disquisition. “This history, the context of the food and what we’re doing here.” He pauses. “Do people even care?”

It can’t be an easy question to answer, given the pressure Eight Tables faces on both ends of the spectrum. Is Chinese food worth the high price tag? Is the food authentic (read: ethnic) enough? Does it matter?

At Eight Tables, the plan of attack begins with a dish called the Nine Essential Flavors, a delectable tongue twister of flavors and textures: tián, xián, suān, kǔ, má, là, xiāng, xiān, xūn. In English, the Nine sound less poetic, but no less appetizing: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, numbing, spicy, fragrant, umami, and smoky.

Each flavor is encapsulated in a single bite, served on an elegant china bowl rimmed with gold. The dish acts as a primer to the rest of the meal, introducing familiar ingredients and flavor profiles, remixed to create something modern and new. A bite into an innocuous looking date reveals the red-bean mochi stuffed inside, perfectly Q (the Taiwanese slang term for a pleasantly springy mouthfeel). To follow, there is a bite of salted egg yolk tucked into a roulade of warm, poached chicken. Then a lightly charred, tangy vegetable, and a puffed and fried pork skin with a dusting of ground Szechuan numbing peppercorn; on and on, nine bites in all.

The staff sets down an iridescent caviar spoon next to the Four Seas Dumpling. Its translucent crystal skin wrapper is brimming over with oceanic delicacy: glistening slices of bay scallop, orange spheres of trout roe, the pebbled tongue of uni, and a beaded dollop of osetra caviar. We are told to eat it however we wish, so I take the mother-of-pearl caviar spoon and cut into it like pie, rotating my plate so my last bite is full of caviar.

The trio of shao kao, or barbecued meat, looks mostly familiar. The glazed char siu is reminiscent of the barbecue commonly found on Chinese street food carts. Elsewhere on the plate, there’s a crispy duck skin atop a crunchy shrimp chip, drizzled with more caviar. The texture of the chip is familiar, with a porous surface that plucks at my tongue. But the best bit of crunch comes from a siu yuk sandwich: a stacked, porcine cube of meat, fat, crispy skin, and a thin layer of sharp mustard sandwiched somewhere in between.

Up next is a poached lobster, floating in an aromatic seafood broth on a crispy rice cracker raft. The bottarga brunoise in the clear broth smells promisingly of the sea, though it tastes milder than it smells. That is the careful calibration the Eight Tables team makes, with the intention of slowly introducing less common ingredients to Western palates.

“We’re just starting out, so we’re not yet putting any super exotic ingredients out there, like bird’s nest or sea cucumber or fish maw,” Chen admits. But the things he names are staple ingredients to many a childhood spent at Chinese banquets, toying with the pepto-bismol pink tablecloths while eating cold plates of gelatinous marinated jellyfish, thin slices of pig’s ear poached in chili oil, and the white honeycomb of tripe, simmering in a savory, dark stew.

Instead, Chen and Lin will take it slow and steady, stoking nostalgia while trying new things. Like their scallion man tou (buns) that looks like a rose but tastes like a truffle. Or the hunk of red-braised, fatty pork served alongside a tiny, quail-sized tea egg. Or the fermented rice sorbet topped with goji berry vinegar, delicate and refreshing and surprising.

As the meal winds down, we chat with Tony Kim, the wine director who has been pouring and educating us all night. The mere fact that there is a wine pairing available, nonetheless a sublime one, is astounding. Earlier, when Chen mentions that typically, people think of pairing greasy Chinese food with Tsing Tao beer, Kim quips, tongue-in-cheek, “and maybe if you’re really adventurous, a little bit of German Riesling.” He rolls his eyes. “It’s too easy!”

The road ahead for Eight Tables will be anything but easy. Elevating a traditionally ethnic cuisine has its challenges, with slim profit margins for restaurants and ever-increasing competition. It will rely not only on stellar technique and beautiful ingredients, but also on the ability to deconstruct those preconceived, long-held notions of what a foreign culture looks and tastes like, before building it back up again as something more apropos to this modern, inclusive century we live in. At Eight Tables, that process begins with a dish. And it will keep going, dish after dish after dish, until Chinese cuisine is no longer synonymous with a cheap, white, take-out box. – Giant Robot Media (02.16.18)