If there were a contest to find San Francisco's most eccentric restaurant, Jai Yun would be a strong finalist. This eight-year-old Shanghai-style place, recently relocated from its original Pacific Ave. hole-in-the-wall location to a nicer, larger space on Clay (most recently the site of Flying Pan Bistro), is open only three hours a day, six nights a week. You must make reservations at least one day in advance, but the phone is often answered by chef Nei Chia Ji, whose English isn't always up to the challenge.
Making a reservation for a recent meal proved to be more trouble than it had been for my several previous visits. I repeated my telephone number five times, but Chef Nei, or whoever answered the phone, kept reciting it back with two of the digits transposed, and when I tried to say how much I wanted to spend, he kept telling me the new address. So I wrote the relevant information on a card and went by the restaurant to drop it off, but it was closed, and there was no mail slot, so I just stuck it under the door. Apparently it was received, since an English-speaking woman called and straightened things out.
Nei prepares some of the most refined and elaborate Chinese food in the Bay Area, uses the best ingredients, and makes all of his preserves, charcuterie, pickles, and so on in-house, but the restaurant's decor and furnishings are modest and generic. There's no written menu; Nei decides what to cook based on what he finds in the market each day, and over the course of a couple of hours sends your table a dozen or so courses, each served family style. If you're lucky, the server will speak enough English to tell you what you're eating.
Following the Shanghai tradition, the first course was an assortment of cold appetizers, laid out on small plates like Korean panchan. All but one of the 11 dishes were delicious, and our server's English was good enough that in most cases we knew what we were eating. A salad of mushrooms, julienned tripe, and impossibly thin threads of fresh red chile was one of those the-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts dishes only a great chef could invent and prepare. Thin slices of subtly spiced, cartilaginous braised beef (often called beef tendon on Chinese menus) could have come from any upscale Italian restaurant's house-made salumi platter. Diced, house-made dried tofu tossed with a lot of cilantro and who knows what else had a surprising finish reminiscent of coffee and heavily caramelized flan. Slices of salty, house-preserved duck and slightly sweet, fatty house-smoked fish were by far the best versions I've had of these two standard Shanghai appetizers. Strips of exquisitely fresh jellyfish had a delightful texture highlighted by a touch of aromatic lemon zest, and a simple salad of perfect cucumber got a similar lift from the slightest hint of sesame oil. Thin-sliced, crunchy, lacy lotus root was startlingly sweet but balanced by a little tartness. The subtle character of Chinese green radish was enhanced by mixing salt-pickled with fresh. A soy "vegetarian chicken" with a bit of star anise was the only dish we didn't polish off. Shredded cabbage and pickled ginger had a serious bite and was a nice, refreshing note to finish on.
After the cold appetizers came eleven hot dishes. The first was thin-sliced abalone briefly stir-fried with egg white, oil, and salt. The utter simplicity of the preparation preserved the firm texture and maximized the delicate flavor of the rare and expensive mollusk. Then came fried wheat gluten with two types of mushrooms, one tied in knots. The damp, spongy, slightly crunchy gluten was oddly reminiscent of sourdough French toast with syrup.
The next dish was the only dud of the evening. The server described it as shrimp with ginkgo nuts, but the chef had substituted garbanzo beans. The shrimp were tasty, but the beans were bland, mushy, and basically pointless, since they didn't provide the contrast in flavor or texture ginkgo nuts would have.
A pastalike dish of fresh soybeans and noodlelike strips of tofu skin tossed with a little bitter greens and celery was colorful and flavorful. The bright green beans provided a hint of spring on a cold, rainy winter night.
At this point, the menu took a sharp turn from subtle to bold flavors, with an assertively spicy squid with a little wood ear and pickled cabbage. Next came the highlight of the meal, which the server described modestly as "dried rice noodles and dried pork." This was the ultimate wok-fried noodle dish: The wide, thin noodles were chewy and caramelized, and the slightly scorched, paper-thin slices of salty, unsmoked ham added a funky, aged quality. If Jai Yun had an à la carte lunch menu, this dish would bring customers back again and again.
"Orange beef" is the one dish that has been served every time I've eaten here. Thin-sliced, dredged in cornstarch, fried up as crunchy as pork rinds, and sauced with dried peel that tastes a bit like Seville orange marmalade, this cries out for a bowl of plain steamed rice, which, as is the custom in banquet-style Chinese restaurants, is served only on request. If you want to be sure that some is available, request it when you make your reservation.
A simple stir-fry of celery and dried tofu was similar to the cilantro and dried tofu appetizer, and was a nice palate cleanser for the following rich dish of braised pork shank (often called honey ham on Shanghai menus). The sauce was incredible, and great with rice, though the meat might have benefited from cooking a bit longer.
Stir-fried eggplant had such intense wok hay (a Chinese term for the unique flavors created by expert wok cooking) that it almost tasted grilled. A pinch of sugar added to the caramel and crust, and was balanced with something sour so the dish didn't taste sweet.
The final dish was a scrumptious, stewlike hot pot of meaty eel (or perhaps lamprey), soft taro dumplings, whole garlic, and cilantro. With a fancier presentation, this dish could fit on the menu of the most expensive French-Asian fusion restaurant. It seemed an odd note to end on. Next time, when reserving I'll ask to end with a light dish and fresh fruit.
Jai Yun has a small selection of beers, including Tsingtao, which would have been great with the cold appetizers. There's also a limited choice of wine, but you'd do better to take advantage of the no-corkage-charge policy and bring your own.
The price per person starts at $45. Pay more and you get more appetizers, additional courses, and fancier ingredients such as abalone and eel. The meal in this review was $80; I feared the top-priced $100 menu might substitute items such as shark's fin that are prized more for their rarity and expense than for their flavor.
Jai Yun isn't cheap, but few S.F. restaurants give as much value for your money. This is as good as Chinese food gets in this town, so get a group together and take a crack at making a reservation.