Here’s what you need to know about Chinatown’s new temple of fine-dining

Years after cementing itself as the birthplace of California cuisine, San Francisco has now become known as the “Land of the Tasting Menu.” The perfect storm of tech affluence, international travelers, and ambitious chefs has resulted in some of the country’s best dining experiences (and most Michelin stars). Now, there’s a new contender in town: Eight Tables by George Chen, the fine-dining apex of Chinese food and retail emporium China Live.

The whole concept is based on an elite style of dining in China
The menu is one of the city’s most expensive, clocking in at $225 for food, with an optional $125 wine pairing in tow. It’s also one of the most ambitious of its kind to open in recent memory, based on its construction bill (and lead time of over two years) alone. It’s also singular in its cuisine, which is shifan tsui, or “private chateau cuisine,” an elite style of residential dining in cities of China. There aren’t many Chinese restaurants operating at this level in San Francisco; unlike Mister Jiu’s, the upscale, one Michelin-starred restaurant down the street, it is focused only on serving prix fixe menus to small groups of diners each night, literally offering eight tables of varying size for reservation only.

It’s dinner and a show
The devil is in the details, and Eight Tables is banking on a theatrical style to set it apart from others. The design by AvroKo is stunning (though social media commenters have compared it to a waiting room, its subdued, cream-colored interior shows best in person). The entrance is a back alley, which boasts a secret elevator, may eventually include a rickshaw ride to the doorway, and a foyer to greet guests as if they were visiting the home of a very fancy friend (or more literally George Chen and his wife Cindy; portraits of Chen’s relatives line the walls). The hallway outside the restaurant, which leads to Scotch bar Cold Drinks next door and China Live downstairs, is lined with doors labelled with fictitious businesses, giving it an old-school film noir vibe.

The team is filled with fine-dining veterans
From front to back, the staff is composed of fine-dining veterans from some of the city’s best restaurants, including Saison and Benu. Meanwhile, chef de cuisine Robin Lin moved to San Francisco for this project; he’s working alongside Chen, whose many past restaurants include James Beard Award-winning Betelnut, and pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez (Absinthe).

Former Saison beverage director Anthony Keels is in charge of cocktails, wielding liquid nitrogen and whimsical touches like a gin cocktail designed to mimic a lily pond, and a martini made by infusing vodka with wok-grilled rice. Tony Kim, who came from the Redwood Room at the Clift Hotel, has designed a wine pairing with global influences, including lambrusco, a Spanish white wine made with sherry grapes, and more than one Champagne. Andrew Fuentes, also of Saison, is in charge of the front of house, bringing a polished but approachable vibe to the dining room.

What’s for dinner
The menu is eight courses, starting with the “nine essential flavors,” an expanded riff on the five essential flavors of Chinese cuisine: salty, spicy, sour, sweet, and bitter. Luxury ingredients are scattered throughout the coursed meal, including caviar, uni, foie gras embedded in a dumpling, and Burgundy truffles scattered atop a chicken dish. According to Chen, Chinese tasting menus don’t follow the build-up of what Americans typically expect, from lightest to heaviest. Dishes may jump from sweet to savory, and rich to delicate.

Here’s a look at some of the dishes on the opening menu, though Chen says the menu will change frequently:
Jiu Gonge Ge (nine essential flavors) from top left to right: jujube date with chrysanthemum honey, chicken roulade with egg yolk, beef in aspic, bitter melon, beef tendon simmedred with red and green Szechuan peppers, eight treasures tart, rolled yuba, white miso, and spinach, pickled clam, smoked and cured anchovy.

Four seas dumpling: shrimp hargow-style dumpling, topped with Russian golden osetra caviar, trout roe, creme fraiche, and chives; uni adorns the bottom of the plate.

Peking duck skin with kaluga caviar

Red braised pork with fava beans, tofu knots, and tea quail egg with five spice; side of fried and puffed rice

“Chinese Sea Grass” dessert with passion fruit, mesquite bubbles

Dinner reservations are available Tuesday- Saturday from 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. starting Tuesday, September 19. – Eater San Francisco (09.13.17)