San Francisco’s Eight Tables Does Chinese Fine Dining Unlike Anywhere Else in the Country
It’s a perfect marrying of gastronomic art and cuisine
I’ve said it since opening in 2017 and I’ll say it again: there’s no equal to Eight Tables in the country. This upscale-modern Chinese restaurant hidden upstairs inside China Live houses merely eight tables so spaced out, it was meant for a post-pandemic world. You enter via an elevator off a long Chinatown alley named after one of my favorite poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, Kenneth Rexroth.
I’ve been each year to Eight Tables since chef-owner George Chen opened it. Chen’s long, rich history in SF and roots in Taiwan and China includes opening many restaurants, including legends — and old favorites of mine, now gone: James Beard-nominated Betelnut and Shanghai 1930.
Modeled after an opulent Chinese home, the AvroKO-designed space is unlike most fine dining restaurants I’ve been to by thousands around the globe: it glows in warm, neutral tones, light and soothing, each alcove separately spaced out with fellow diners across the way (Time magazine named it one of the “great places” of 2018). Inspired by private chateau dining/supper clubs, called si fang cai in China and Taiwan (with a couple non-fine dining iterations in L.A. shopping centers), each visit showcased flavors I experienced in China and Taiwan.
I visited just as chef de cuisine Floyd Nunn, who was sous chef or chef de partie at none other than three Michelin-starred Quince and Benu, came on board in 2021. So my return this June 2022 confirms his growing voice — and three Michelin perspective — on the menu, rendering it more global yet still Chinese/Tawainese at heart, with early favorites last year being aromatic liu jipu chicken in a bowl of jade and pearls or a Spring lamb in multiple forms, including a delectable sausage.
But this June, my husband Dan, The Renaissance Man, and I entered Eight Tables’ soothing parlor lined with black and white photos of Chen’s family — after initial drinks next door at the Blade Runner-meets-Shanghai Cold Drinks bar, an ideal pre-or post-dinner stop in Chen’s multi-faceted modern Chinese complex with cocktails from bar manager Yong Zhu. A vintage record player emits the tranquilizing sounds of jazz, as you walk through an intimate bar room to your table in the generously spaced-out dining room and your individual banquettes separated by walls.
Warm service weaves us through ten courses seamlessly, as we settle in for the duration. We know what’s coming first, and in many ways, it’s the highlight of the meal: Eight Tables’ now signature Jiu Gong Ge covers “nine essential flavors of Chinese cuisine” on one platter, in nine individual porcelain mini-plates. In my travels through Chengdu, China, just before pandemic, the inspiring RUYI Gastronomy dinners by LEGLE France walked me through 24 flavors representing Sichuan/Szechuan cuisine alone, just one of many of the diverse and wide-ranging cuisines in Chinese food. So summarizing key flavors of the most complex cuisine in a vast nation is no easy task. Still, as you weave from sweet, salty, sour, bitter and numbing to spicy, fragrant, sharp and smoky, the introductory Jiu Gong Ge takes you on a journey, one that engages each part of the palate and sense memory.
There’s no point in picking a favorite as each flavor delights, whether a red jujube date in longan mochi (sweet), tangerine in finger limes (sour), tempura congee in Périgord truffles (fragrant) or silky, cherrywood smoked Mt. Lassen trout (smoky). Da Hong Pao big red robe oolong tea poured tableside evokes classic Chinese elegance with current sensibilities.
Wine pairings veer Old World perfection from Austria to Burgundy, France, with some aged Napa and Sonoma Coast adding local flair. In fact, the latest addition of sommelier Peter Steiner banks on his longtime expertise in wine, including over eleven years at Chez Panisse developing their wine program in formative years.
California asparagus dotted with Kaluga caviar is one of the most beautiful courses. It’s all green-on-green on leaf-like plate, a chlorophyl wonder. On a sheet of tofu accented by bracken ferns, it’s vegetal and soothing.
Then comes foie gras xiao long bao, the traditional Shanghainese soup dumplings sipped up with black vinegar and ginger. I mistakenly assumed this would be just another example of expensive ingredients in a beloved classic. It was, in fact, an ecstatic couple of bites. One that makes you “ooh” with pleasure as the soup’s rich broth seeps from the dumpling. You can’t feel foie was meant to be in soup dumplings. Paired with white Burgundy — 2019 Vocoret “Les Forets” Chardonnay/Chablis — it’s dreamy.
Steamed Monterey squid over a squash blossom stuffed with squid and zucchini squash partners a little pool of fish roe-laced sweet and sour sauce. It tastes of California summer from our impeccable squid to the squash. An “off menu” shrimp toast lush with uni (sea urchin) on top plays off classic Hongkongese-Cantonese dim sum prawn toast with umami decadence.
Two of the most complex, interesting courses? Thinly sliced porcini mushrooms “dan dan”-style atop a steamed pudding laced with abalone, medjool dates, in savory ginseng chicken and abalone broth. Dates provide a welcome sweet contrast to the pudding’s silkiness. A drink pairing of Hamakawa Shoten Tokubetsu Junmai “The Gentleman” sake lifts the dish with light, dry, tropical notes. The other course: osmanthus-smoked squab, partially deboned, over glutinous rice filled with dried scallops, garlic, chive. Subtle bittersweet tannins sing with the juicy squab and comfortingly sticky rice, gaining earthy, olive, dark fruit layers with a 2020 Joiseph BFF Blaufrankisch red wine from Burgenland, Austria.
Iberico pork char siu was the final savory course — after a strong lamb course. I recall the char siu four-or-five-ways dish I loved in my first couple visits to Eight Tables. Chef Nunn evolved the presentation of this luxurious Chinese meat with fish-fragrant eggplant, Chinese mustard and caramelized honey, a sumptuous play in contrasts running fatty, umami, sweet, funky and earthy simultaneously. Accompanying Carolina Gold fried rice adds starchy heft to the rich slivers of meat. The kirsch-laden, herbaceous, dark fruit depth of a 2011 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa grounds the dish.
Jasmine-vanilla rice pudding dotted with dragonfruit and jasmine tea foam hiding hibiscus sorbet is an appropriately comforting yet light finish.
A nightcap in Cold Drinks is just thing, especially since the Silk Degrees cocktail — basically a clarified Pina Colada — clear and silky, combining coconut washed Johnnie Walker Black Scotch with coconut water and pineapple, is my ideal (not too sweet, boozy) dessert.
There is a lavish, Old World refinement to Eight Tables, yet Chen and Nunn keep the menu decadent yet not too heavy, forward-thinking yet in touch with its soul. With all the fine dining Korean on the rise the past few years, and the long-held perfection of Japanese fine dining, Eight Tables has been showing us the possibilities in elevated Chinese dining for nearly five years now, and I’m still waiting to see others even near its class. – The Bold Italic (07.22.22)