China Live is an ambitious crash course in regional Chinese cuisine. Just don’t tell the chef his food isn’t “authentic.”
Give me any kind of cooking, and I’ll find you a group of sticklers who’ll complain that someone somewhere isn’t treating it right. There are Italian autocrats of “authenticity,” fussy Francophiles, and barbecue aficionados who will point out all the ways the brisket you’re enjoying violates the rules of proper slow-cooking and spice.
It’s a boring conversation.
Better to listen to George Chen’s bemusement when he talks about reactions to the Chinese food he makes. It’s midweek, midevening at China Live, the chef’s culinary megaplex in Chinatown. Chen is standing at our table, and it’s slightly awkward: He has figured out what I am up to. He grins and nods toward the restaurant critic from the San Francisco Chronicle, who is seated nearby and up to the same thing.
Elsewhere in the dining room—a smart, expansive space ringed by task-specific kitchens for dim sum, stir-fries, braises, barbecue, and so on—Chen has spotted other food-world pooh-bahs, including a big-name local chef and a swarm of suspected power Yelpers.
“I’m sure some of them will bite my head off,” he says, “because the food isn’t exactly what their grandma used to make.”
With that, he sets down a platter of steamed dumplings. They’re not like my grandma’s because she was from Romania. But they’re delicious: slippery-skinned purses in two different styles, with a black-vinegar-and-soy dipping sauce on the side. Some have wheat flour wrappings plumped with ground pork and chives. Others cut a more exotic profile. Their casings are tinted purple from yams, and their crunchy celery-and-pork insides have a numbing heat from Sichuan peppercorns.
“OK, they’re not authentic,” Chen says. “But I’m not necessarily trying to do authentic here.” Then he’s off to work the crowd, anonymous tastemakers and known newspapermen alike. Chen knows he can’t please everyone, but he seems keen on giving it his best shot.
The outgrowth of that effort is this $20 million food emporium near the Broadway Tunnel, which sprang to life in March, two years behind schedule and wildly over budget but not the least bit overlooked. Some of the buzz owes to Chen himself, an accomplished restaurateur with a showman’s instincts who once owned Betelnut and Shanghai 1930. But mostly it’s the scale and grand ambitions of the project, which already has a flower mart, a bakery, and a retail store with a demonstration kitchen—and still isn’t complete. Plans also call for a rooftop garden and a high-end tasting-menu restaurant, the crowning glory on a 30,000-square-foot, multi-faced colossus whose sum purpose, Chen has said, is to offer an education in Chinese cuisine.
What he provides so far, in his ground-floor Market Restaurant, is a rollicking crash course that’s by turns delightful and disorienting in the expanse of the terrain it covers. Like the best surveys, it leaps back and forth between the familiar and the surprising, and holds your interest by reminding you how much there is to know.
Take Peking duck, a dish you’ve surely had but likely not like this. Rather than present it in its component parts—pancakes, scallions, roast duck, and lacquered skin—Chen and his team of chefs serve the classic preassembled. But the pancakes aren’t the usual wheat flour crepes. They’re puffy, sesame-seed-topped pouches, bronzed lightly in the oven and stuffed with tender-crunchy, scallion-brightened cargo. Nor is the sauce the same old sugary stuff. It’s shot through with kumquat, which cuts the sweetness and complements the richness of the bird. That’s not to say that Chen throws all tradition out the window: He says he patterned the duck after a version he had in Beijing.
In any case, we didn’t linger in the capital city for long. The menu roams freely. One moment you’re in Shanghai for delicate xiao long bao, aka soup dumplings, their bellies bulging with gingery pork broth. I’ve had less expensive versions in the city, but if you know where to find better, please clue me in. Then it’s off to Hunan Province for bacon la rou. A tangle of leggy green chive buds speckled with black beans and slicked with smoky bacon fat, it’s a refined example of the humble Chinese art of making the most of very little meat.
Chen has talked about his goal of showcasing Chinese cuisine as something more than mix-and-match stir-fries in indistinguishable brown sauces. His kitchen walks that wok. A quick-cooked medley of shredded pork, celery, and tree ear mushrooms could almost pass as mu shu pork without the pancakes. But that’s an insult to a dish I’d rather praise for the blend of anchovies and fermented black bean soy sauce that gives it a winning fishy funk. Chinese broccoli, meanwhile, a vegetable I picture hanging out forlornly in cloying oyster sauce, shows up not limp but charred, tossed with toasted sesame seeds and trumpet mushrooms.
When dishes disappoint, they aren’t so much misses as misrepresentations. Grilled octopus with XO sauce is listed under seafood, which makes sense until you discover it’s actually a towering headdress of watercress and mint. I’d call it a salad, or an octopus’s garden without much octopus. As for the shellfish-based sauce that was promised, it went undetected on the tongue.
The other pitfall is that the sheer eclecticism of the menu makes it hard to pick out a coherent meal. There’s a happy element of adventure to an evening, but also the sense of traveling without a map. Throw in several dinners’ worth of tempting detours—rare teas, an epic wine list crafted to stand up to spice, and desserts that play with such not-too-sweet sweets as sesame soft-serve ice cream and mango shaved ice—and I couldn’t shake the feeling that no matter what I ordered, I was somehow missing out.
None of which amounts to a serious problem. And what I remember more are the treasures I came upon while stumbling around. One was a warm tonic, a beautifully bitter soup in which dried scallops, lily bulbs, goji berries, and black chicken had sacrificed their flavors to a cuttlefish-enhanced broth. Another was a preserved “century” egg, greenish black and jiggly, creamy but briny. It was cut into wedges, arrayed like a flower, then topped with sweet roasted peppers and ground Sichuan peppercorns.
I found the combo stunning, but Chen later told me folks who’d grown up eating century eggs with tofu insisted they would rather have the eggs the traditional way.
To each his own. At some restaurants, I’d rather be a student than an expert, and let the food just be what it wants to be.
The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at China Live
Roasted peppers with century egg: $8
Shan Dong shui jiao “water dumplings”: $9
Xiao long bao: $9
Peking duck : $19
Hunan cured bacon la rou: $16
Wau guan tau tonic, scallop, cured seafood, flower mushroom, chicken:$25
Sesame soft serve with mango shaved ice: $9
Fogarty Gewürtzraminer, 2014 Monterey: $36
644 Broadway (Near Grant Ave.), 415-788-8188
3 stars – San Francisco Magazine (05.22.17)