An elaborate 10-course tasting menu invites diners into the world of shi fan tsai, private chateau-style dining.
Chinese cuisine is known for elaborate banquet spreads, and private dining is the elite flipside of the social hierarchy. Banquets tend to feature an array of different foods, often heavy, concluding with lots of rice, noodles and other starches in case you didn’t get your fill from proteins and other more expensive foods. Shi fan tsai, on the other hand, is what you might be offered at the home of a wealthy family with a private chef: many small courses, plated individually, coursed out over a leisurely evening.
The entrance to Eight Tables is on Kenneth Rexroth Lane in San Francisco’s Chinatown, an alley in back of a wrought-iron gate. After fighting for parking, we were greeted at the gate by two young women in black dresses. I looked to my left, and the woman asked, “May I see your prescription?” I looked to my right, and the other woman said, “Are you here to visit Eight Tables?” Relief.
An elevator ride to the second floor delivers us to another world, one of timeless, restrained decadence.
Executive Chef George Chen is well known for his legendary Betelnut restaurant in the Marina District, which closed in 2015 after a 20-year run, as well as the upscale Shanghai 1930 in the Financial District, which closed in 2010, and several other San Francisco and Shanghai restaurants. China Live is Chen’s 20,000-square-foot Chinese food emporium, along the lines of Eataly in New York (and now Chicago and Boston). Other players on this star-studded team include two Saison alums, Andrew Fuentes at the front of the house and mixologist Andrew Keels behind the bar. Tony Kim, most recently of the Redwood Room at The Clift Hotel, leads the wine program. Luis Villavelazquez, formerly of Absinthe, is the mastermind of the elaborate dessert creations to come.
The luxurious Eight Tables space, on the second floor of China Live, all cream and golden in hue, was designed by AvroKO, which won a 2017 James Beard Award for Single Thread in Healdsburg.
In the reception lounge, we were offered warm towels as we took off our coats. Behind us hung a large-format, crisply focused photo of Chen and his parents, the kind of photograph you might see in the private home of a family of means in China.
As we were escorted to our seats, we paused at the bar to ooh and aah at the mobile cart where Keels stands at the ready to dispense a cocktail. We had decided to do the wine pairings instead, designed by sommelier Kim to highlight the range of possibilities for pairing wine with classic Chinese flavors, a practice that isn’t terribly common.
One stunning detail is the textured walls. Chef Chen explains that the process involved using antique fabric from Chinese wedding dresses, pressed into wet plaster, and allowed to partially dry—enough to leave the pattern behind, while not tearing the material.
There are eight tables in the graciously appointed room, a number considered to be the luckiest in Chinese culture. Servers in fawn-colored suits appear and disappear in choreographed, ballet-like motion throughout the night.
Chen’s cooking, further developed and executed by Chef de Cuisine Robin Lin, translates this luxury to gathering at table for a lyrical and carefully crafted meal.
Jiu gong ge, or nine essential flavors, is the name of the first course, and from a sensory perspective, it’s a microcosm of the other nine courses to follow, as it represents the full spectrum of possible flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, numbing, spicy, nutty, sharp, and smoky. Each elegant bite is plated on dishes made for just the occasion and arranged in a complex numerology that forms a lo shu grid, which adds up to 15 vertically, horizontally and diagonally, considered very lucky, even magical.
You will have your favorite of the bites, as well as a logic for proceeding through them. The four people at our table all chose different paths through the maze. One preferred to save the sweet jujube stuffed with glutinous rice and chickpea hearts for the last bite, while another preferred to end with a local anchovy wok-smoked with black sugar and tea. We all placed the ma (numbing) and la (spicy), often combined, but distinct dishes here, in the middle of the experience. Each dish represented its category precisely and creatively. My own favorites were the “sharp” clam marinated in soy sauce with ginger and scallions and the gelatin of pork shank with (sour) vinegar and thin slices of ginger. The strangest and most interesting was a little (nutty) roulade of nori and yuba (tofu noodles). A tiny stack of bitter melon slices was bracing, as intended.
The wine selected for pairing with this course was the sparkling Cuvée Angeline Brut Champagne from J. Lassalle, whose crisp brightness stands up to the intense flavors and whose sweetness gives ballast to the spicier end of things.
Perhaps the unanimous favorite dish of the night, course number two was a four-pronged shrimp dumpling topped with Osetra caviar, trout roe, sour cream topped with finger lime, and scallions, all in their respective quadrants and surrounded by micro-greens and Santa Barbara sea urchin on the plate.
A brilliant wine pairing was the unusual Palomino Fino from Valdespino, essentially unfortified sherry. It’s dry, but with a glimmer of sherry-toned fruit sweetness.
Barbecue “Shao Kao” features Kaluga caviar farmed in China! Though most diners might not have heard of it, this sturgeon caviar is being served by Lufthansa in its first-class cabins and has been vetted for sustainability and cleanliness (as China isn’t always known for environmental practices). Iberico pork (rather than the ham most of us are familiar with) is served chashu style alongside crispy duck skin and amazing little pearls of apple caviar made by Chen’s wife, Cindy.
The wine course here was a dry Lambrusco, the sparkling Italian red wine that has reclaimed its rightful place at the table over the last decade.
After much intensity on the palate, a gentler course comes next: gulf prawn consommé with glass noodles, a prawn ball and single peppery nasturtium leaf, paired with a Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley (Nielson by Byron), buttery to the consommé’s salty sweetness. A whole fried shrimp wrapped in sea grass comes on the side; I could’ve eaten a bowl of just these.
The other contender for my personal favorite dish was a Norwegian cod steamed in banana leaf with pickled white melon and bamboo “cannelloni” tucked inside, a slice of earthy-crisp lotus root on the bottom. The Champagne comes back out for this course—something I adore about this restaurant, sommelier Kim’s willingness to move in non-linear ways throughout the pairings—a Gosset Brut, classic non-vintage bubbly with notes of Fall fruits and tropical florals.
elvet chicken, the next course, is surely unlike any version you’ve ever tried, made here with early-season truffles from Burgundy and matsutake mushrooms with veal jus. We dip into red wine with a Fleurie Crus Beaujolais by Henry Fessy, fruit-forward and high-toned.
It comes with a handmade savory dumpling, much like a dinner roll in a Western restaurant.
I was, at this point, quite honestly full, but I persisted on to the red braised pork, a rectangle of long-cooked meat with crispy skin served with a tea egg, fava beans and little strands of yuba noodles tied up into knots. A bowl of fried rice with tiny pieces of egg and a crisped-rice garnish is served alongside. The sweetness of this dish requires a bigger red wine, and the Peter Michael Les Pavots Bordeaux Blend did the job, refusing to be overwhelmed by the sweetness, but also not obscuring it.
Perhaps the most clever and successful pairing of all was the Hudson Valley foie gras potsticker in beef noodle soup alongside a quite surprising wine choice: a pétillant naturel Chenin Blanc made in the little-known AVA of Clarksburg in, of all places, the Sacramento Valley (Haarmeyer Wine Cellars, St. Rey). But work it did, the rather funky, sweet-toned but crisp, lightly bubbly wine in harmony with the equally funky but directionally opposite duck liver.
Two dessert courses by Villavelaquez wrap up the meal, the first a palate cleanser of chrysanthemum granita with yogurt and preserved plum, and the latter a strange tour-de-force of mesquite bubbles with fried seaweed and passion fruit cream. The seaweed and passion fruit made a beautiful marriage, while the mesquite foam went a long way on aroma alone. Its taste was perhaps more overwhelming than intended, but it worked as an aromatic accompaniment. The last glass of the night was a discrete counterpoint among the sweet-savory-smoky elements: a Madeira from The Rare Wine Co., a Charleston Sercial named for the Southern U.S. city where the dry style of Madeira caught on in the early 19th century.
The check comes stashed in the pages of a book by the aforementioned Kenneth Rexroth, an eminent translator of Chinese poetry, coming back around full-circle to the alley entrance that bears his name.
We were sent home with beautiful boxes of microbatch bonbons by Oakland chocolatier Karen Urbanek, stamped with symbols representing the four winds, and chopsticks with our names stamped into the enamel.
And so we were carried out that evening and swept back in to the bustling streets of the city and our busy lives, taking with us the memory of culinary completeness—and full for days. – Bay Area Bites (09.26.17)