The name sounds like a Las Vegas revue. In reality, the only similarity of China Live and the Vegas Strip is both are a glittery spectacle, along with the fact that China Live resides along the Broadway corridor by all the Chinatown-North Beach border strip clubs. You walk by SROs, well-worn dim sum parlors, vacant lots under construction and, voilà, behold the designer chic white façade of China Live. You don’t even have to set foot inside to feel the energy. The ambition is palpable just standing by the imposing lions at the entrance.
Everything is bigger and brighter in the 30,000 square foot restaurant-café-marketplace that simply has no other comparison in San Francisco (the Ferry Building Marketplace is really is its own unique genre). For anyone who been to Mario Batali’s everything-Italian food hall bonanza in New York (and now Boston and Chicago), you’ll sense similarities in terms of sheer overstimulation. But, for China Live, there’s just a different feel being right on the edge of Chinatown. Though the primary China Live restaurant is not expensive in this city of $18 salads and $15 cocktails, it’s decidely pricier than the wonton soup, xiao long bao and countless other dishes that are equally great along Chinatown’s streets — and served a lower price amidst decidedly less sparkling digs. It’s a strange conundrum for SF diners. Do you dine in the real Chinatown or the marketplace trying to be a glossy, all-in-one emporium that is spiffed-up polished Chinatown under one roof?
First reports of China Live came a little over three years ago as mammoth undertaking by restaurateur George Chen and Cindy Wong-Chen (best known for the much missed Betelnut in Cow Hollow). There are delays for every restaurant but this was a full-on three-year project that at long last opened two weeks ago. Earlier this week the lunch service in the generically named, 120-seat Market Restaurant launched, so we checked it out to avoid the massive dinner crowds.
Ultimately the experience is solid after opening days and surely the tweaking will elevate it further. No avid Din Tai Fung xiao long bao follower is going to order seconds of the version here, missing the perky skin to gushing juice contrast. Here, the Shanghai dumpling specialty is a collective bite that is perfectly fine but not on the same complexity level.
The winning dish right now is a trio of Dongbei long potstickers with a fresh, invigorating filling of Chinese scallions, tofu, mushrooms, carrots and chives. You can just see this immediately getting mentioned in every vegetarian must-eat listicle (pro tip: dunk it in the vinegar and ginger strands that come with the xiao long bao). They truly are oversized fingers, sharing much more in common with giant French toast sticks than how you would imagine a customary potsticker.
Peking duck gets its chef own station on a side of the dining room with whole ducks getting chopped every minute or two. Curiously, those ducks are served already in somewhat dry sesame pockets that completely cover up the duck. A too generous addition of kumquat glaze also takes away from the tender duck meat. With the glaze and grease of the duck, it’s a mess on the plate — bring napkins. (That greasiness also was a potsticker issue since they clearly weren’t patted dry after being pan-fried).
In the noodles and rice section, try the satisfying Taipei beef noodle soup that could use a little more pizazz but is comforting in the way that beef broth and various cuts of beef can be. The brisket medallions floating about are medium rare and tender, sharing standout duties for the dish with the ideally al dente, thick udon-like housemade noodles. Housemade hot sauce beckons on the side to liven up the broth.
China Live’s Market Restaurant dining room and the whole project was designed by architect superstar firm AvRoKo (just received a James Beard nomination for Single Thread in Healdsburg). Diners seem to gravitate to the counters overlooking the kitchen, the Bar Central cocktail bar and the dumpling-making operation. Above diners, check out the fun exposed concrete ceiling with Chinese characters referring to the nine essential flavors in Chinese cooking.
The rest of the menu at lunch is meant to round out the menu — starting with cold small plates like a spicy bowl of tree ear mushrooms, edamame and ginko nuts, then moving onto some wok stir-frys, grilled meats, and vegetable platters after dumplings and dim sum. There is no doubt, however, that the noodles-rice section and dim sum part of the menu are what cover most tables during the daytime. Dinner has a similar menu with a few more substantial meat and seafood plates.
Strangely, we never received a cocktail or kombucha menu but that part of the operation has a great pedigree thanks to beverage director Duggan McDonnell (formerly with Cantina). The wine list is particularly noteworthy with several impressive small producers available by the glass. Let’s give bonus points for splitting whites between balmy and crisp and the reds between light and robust. But, in the daytime, it’s robust-flavored tea you’ll see being sipped everywhere. Desserts come from a kiosk opposite the main kitchen, dishing out coconut rice pudding with ginger and passion fruit or sesame soft serve and mango shaved ice, but most plates seemed to consider another round of dumplings as dessert.
If you really need a sweet, why not just head towards the Oolong Café at the entrance and pick up a Chinese-inspired pastry or cookie with a to-go tea. Then browse around the retail market and immerse yourself in the full spectacle of this endeavor. That seems like a fitting conclusion to lunch at one of the most anticipated restaurant projects San Francisco has ever seen.- Eater Bay Area Bites (03.18.17)