George Chen is trying to transform the way many Americans view Chinese food: inexpensive and predictable.
Since 2013 he’s been working to build out the three-story building that for decades housed the massive Gold Mountain restaurant, turning the 30,000-square-foot space into the Eataly of Chinese food. Chen is following a pattern set by Mister Jiu’s, another restaurant that opened last year with the purpose of giving a contemporary voice to Chinese food.
After four years and more than $20 million, China Live is still a work in progress. While some combinations are best in class, others taste little better than what you’ll find at a dozen other restaurants in Chinatown.
The first floor of China Live opened in March, with the others to come later. It features two bars: one that serves tea, another with cocktails using Chinese ingredients. About half the space is devoted to curated products — food and housewares — and the other incorporates a 125-seat dining room surrounded by four exhibition kitchens, each with specific tasks: barbecue and grilling; dim sum; wok and seafood; and dessert. The bustle around the stations evokes the feel of a crowded market.
It’s a massive space, but the meticulous attention to detail gives the interior a sophisticated feel. The tables and chairs are made from recycled Chinese elm. The concrete floors have a shiny patina. The textured concrete ceiling is stenciled with Chinese characters that represent the cuisine’s nine essential flavors. Copper hoods capture the lingering smoke of Peking duck, barbecue pork and lacquer-skinned chicken; elongated lights illuminate the pristine pastry station like a stage.
This dramatic interior was designed by AvroKo, which also conceived the stunning interiors at RN74 and Healdsburg’s Single Thread. Here they have created another masterful blend of form and function.
The menu, printed daily to incorporate seasonal products, looks like a four-fold brochure. On one side the food offerings are divided into seven categories. As with most Chinese restaurants, the menu is long, with more than 50 savory items. After five visits, and cramming as much as I could onto the table, I still wasn’t able to sample everything.
The menu tries to serve connoisseurs and novices equally well, especially in such dishes as fried calamari made sweet with blood orange ($15) and the light fish fry ($16), where the seven fillets are wrapped in river grass and fried.
No other modern Chinese restaurant has taken such care with the beverage list. It is crafted by Duggan McDonnell, who spotlights affordable wines that go with the food, including more than 25 by the glass. He oversees the creative cocktails and an outstanding list of teas, including High Mountain Oolong Shan Lin Xi that Chen sources directly.
Chen has also brought on high-powered kitchen talent, including Joey Altman, best known for Miss Pearl’s Jam House, and Jonnatan Leiva, a former Chronicle Rising Star who was the chef at Jack Falstaff.
A noted chef from Taiwan, Robin Lin, is helping to train the kitchen; this summer he will move upstairs to open Eight Tables, a fine-dining restaurant with four-star ambition.
China Live is the most ambitious Chinatown project in decades and if successful could help turn the neighborhood into a major food destination.
The “if” is a key word because the area is still in transition, and at night diners may have to dodge stacks of boxes and mounds of garbage that line Broadway as they find their way to the pristine glass entrance of China Live.
So what works here now? The prize is the Peking duck in kumquat glaze. I’d come here for that alone. I’ve secretly always wondered why this preparation is so prized, and Chen, best known as the owner of Shanghai 1930 and Betelnut, showed me. The skin is as smooth as highly polished leather, with a thin layer of fat that melts and moistens the rich, intense meat.
The duck is removed from the bone as a side ($24) or served with sesame buns ($14 for 3), which are hollow and slightly crisp to hold the sliced duck and scallions. The accompanying house-made hoisin sauce is less sweet and syrupy than what you’ll find at other places.
In fact, anything out of the barbecue station is stellar, whether it’s roast chicken ($18 half/$30 whole), char siu pork with hot mustard ($13), or pork belly with crunchy cabbage served in lotus buns slathered with peanut glaze. ($13).
The dumpling station is also strong. It features some items you won’t find in other restaurants. The vegetarian potstickers ($9 for 3) are about 6 inches long, a perfect blend of doughy top, crisp bottom and crunchy interior. Then there’s round pan-fried pork dumplings ($9 for 4). The pork interior is about as moist as soup dumplings. Another specialty is the “water dumplings” ($9 for 8) in two flavors: chive and pork or purple taro with pork. Unfortunately the xiao long bao, ($9 for six), or soup dumplings, are a little too thick and diminished by the accompanying black vinegar that replaces the needed sourness with overwhelming sweetness.
The rest of the menu is an interesting mix of carefully re-created dishes — Chen imported a green ceramic pot to produce a daily tonic — and location-specific items. Not everything works.
For example, the menu contains a dish called Marco Polo Zhajiangmian Minced Pork Noodles ($14) where the pasta is made by Tony Gemignani of Tony’s Pizza in North Beach. Chen, who’s often in the dining room greeting people and watching over the attentive service, explains that it is designed to tie the North Beach and Chinatown neighborhoods together. The noodles taste flat and the pork bland.
The Yangzhou fried rice with barbecue pork and shrimp ($19) is generic, however three treasures clay pot rice ($19) is distinctive, spiced with Chinese sausage and cured duck sausage, mushrooms and other earthy ingredients.
The most disappointing category is the wok, stir-fried and grill items where dishes such as kung pao firecracker chicken ($18) try to marry two popular dishes and diminish both. Another stir-fry, the crystal shrimp ($24) with shiitake mushrooms, wolfberries, gingko and lily buds has all the ingredients I love, but doesn’t resonate. I wanted to add a load of soy sauce, which is a last resort, to give it character.
In the daily changes of the menu, vegetables are often the most interesting dishes.
Recently Chen offered grilled asparagus ($15) with lemon aioli and trout roe. That’s certainly something you probably wouldn’t see anywhere else in Chinatown, but it’s the type of preparation that makes the food approachable for a variety of guests.
On other visits the kitchen featured a dynamic blend of lacy black wood ear mushrooms ($8) with fleshy gingko nuts and soy beans all napped in a hot mustard sauce; the texture of the mushrooms snapped like a band, the nuts were creamy and the mustard created a buzz. Another time it was first-of-the-season celtuse with baby shrimp and tea oil ($8).
Some common preparations get an update, such as the blistered green beans ($14) tossed with Yunnan olive, pickled radish, salted plum and mushrooms. Yet as in many other vegetable dishes here the seasonings needed to be more assertive.
China Live features a dessert menu created by a proven pastry chef, Luis Villavelazquez, who has worked at restaurants like Absinthe. His menu includes reinvented Chinese cookies; a chocolate tart with licorice cream ($9); strawberries over vanilla custard with shaved green tea ice ($9); and sesame soft serve with mango shaved ice ($9), which is quickly becoming the most popular item.
These desserts, like the rest of the menu, are ambitious. There are a lot of moving parts in China Live and more to come. While the concept may still need fine-tuning, it’s already an exciting idea worth supporting. – San Francisco Chronicle (04.12.17)