Some people have drawn parallels between China Live, the four-story culinary complex on the border between San Francisco’s Chinatown and North Beach, and Mario Batali’s uber-popular Eataly, which started in New York City. That makes sense. Both food halls have culinary star power behind them — in San Francisco’s case, Betelnut restaurateur and executive chef George Chen — and celebrate a single, spectacular cuisine.
Chen launched the first phase of his 30,000-square-foot modern food hall in March with the opening of Market Restaurant and Bar Central, the Oolong Cafe and a retail Marketplace with spices, condiments, cutlery and cookware. This week, he opened Eight Tables, an ode to Chinese private chateau cuisine or shifan tsai. Next up: Chen’s rooftop bar and lounge, which will open next year. It’s a dizzying array of deliciousness.
Here are our best insider tips to explore it all.
1 Make reservations or dine early: Yes, China Live’s Market Restaurant takes reservations. Feeling more spontaneous than that? The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. daily. Come early and beat the lunch rush, or head here for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up or early dinner. Bonus: The Market Restaurant menu is now available at the quieter Oolong tea cafe, too. The Chinese tea cookies and pastries are available in the Market dining room. And you can have tea service no matter where you sit.
2 Arrive early for a pre-dinner drink: If you’ve got a 7 p.m. dinner reservation in the Market Restaurant, get here early and head upstairs to the unmarked Cold Drinks Bar. Look for a plain white door, surrounded by black bats, which not only represent good fortune, they’re a nod to Chen’s childhood nickname, Batman. This calm cocktail oasis serves up creative libations, including Scotch-based sips infused with Chinese herbs and spices. Try the Sometimes Old Fashioned ($16) or the Rule Breaker ($18), made with Scotch, tequila and cognac. The Cold Drinks Bar staff will send your unfinished drinks downstairs with you when your table is ready.
3 Take fuss-free tea service home: Want to enjoy China Live’s tea at home, without the messiness of straining out the soggy, unfurled tea leaves? Pick up one of Chen’s China Live Bamboo Tea Mugs ($14) at the Marketplace retail market. You put loose tea in the strainer, add hot water, replace the lid and let it steep. When your tea is ready, put the lid on the table and place the strainer on top of it. The lid acts as a saucer to catch any drips.
4 Taste the best soy sauce ever: Chen’s China Live kitchen ingredient series is also available for tasting at the retail shop. You’ll really understand umami when you try the complex, rich and earthy House Soy Sauce ($7.95). We also thoroughly enjoyed the tangy and mild House Vinegar ($8.95), fiery House Chili Sauce ($6.95) and Sichuan Pepper Powder ($6.99).
5 Watch free cooking demos: Don’t know what extra-virgin tea oil is and how to use it? Not sure what to do with that wok? China Live offers culinary demonstrations on Saturday afternoons.
6 Score a discount: Keep a copy of your dining tab; it will score you 20 percent off any Marketplace retail purchase.
7 Don’t diss the durian: At the market, tropical durian fruit can be daunting. It looks like a spiky football, but it smells like rank socks (or worse). But Chen’s pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez isn’t afraid of this stinky fruit — and after you taste his Durian Soft Serve ($10), you’ll polish off the bowl. Somehow the durian is transformed into a silky, creamy, irresistible treat, topped with roasted pineapple and crunchy, caramelized sunflower seeds.
Details: China Live is open daily at 644 Broadway, San Francisco; chinalivesf.com. – The Mercury News (10.07.17)