Blue-and-white tile is a totem of Chinese art, but very little of it depicts the Port of Oakland’s massive container cranes as if they were about to unload a full shipment of lapis lazuli. The Oolong Cafe in front of China Live Marketplace has exactly that, along with images of the Golden Gate Bridge leading to the fabled Kunlun Mountain.
It’s stunning, as is the rest of China Live, a 30,000-square-foot restaurant-and-retail complex that opened two months ago on Broadway. A project by restaurateur George Chen (of Betelnut) and his partner Cindy Wong-Chen, its interior was designed by the same company (AvroKo) that just won a James Beard Award for Healdsburg’s restaurant-and-inn SingleThread.
With a bar, a tea lounge, a 120-seat restaurant, and a shop full of Sriracha and cookbooks and upscale tchotchkes, China Live is like nothing else in San Francisco. The most obvious comparison would be Eataly, Mario Batali et al.’s network of massive, no-reservation Italian food halls. Both aim to re-create an experience that’s like the condensed version of what globally aware, aspirational diners might enjoy in their respective countries: top quality, but neither rigidly authentic nor rustic. I don’t know what the rent is, but based on the overall square footage and the percentage devoted to retail, I’ll hazard a guess that China Live will have to move a lot of merch to stay in the black.
Eataly also embodies a level of polish that would be quite daunting for China Live to replicate. (Order a platter of salumi et formaggi at Eataly, and it’s going to arrive at your table in about three minutes.) But even with China Live’s emphasis on fresh dim sum every 20 minutes or so, hot foods don’t quite work like that. Eataly is also a step or two up the pricing ladder, it should be noted.
In any case, what’s available right now at China Live is only phase one. Additional food and drink spaces upstairs have yet to open, although the ground-level Market Restaurant is plenty impressive, its various stations occupying corners of a large room filled with well-spaced tables and stools. (Sit at the counter if you can.)
The menu pays respect to Taiwan and mainland China both. Start with a bowl of xiaolongbao, which run six for $9. Compared with the pork XLB at Santa Clara’s equally anticipated Din Tai Fung, these were better flavored but structurally deficient. They lacked a certain bounce, and the pork was a little mushy. Although I liked the thick seasoned consomme and the ginger-heavy house-made dipping sauce, four of the six thin-skinned dumplings broke open in the transfer to the spoon.
Limp pork afflicted the sheng jian bao (four for $9) the same way, and although their time in the iron skillet reinforced their texture, these dumplings were too doughy in the end. A $13 “most loved” minced pork rice bowl — deconstructed so that the lu rou fan pork came in a gravy boat to pour over the rice — was the porcine redemption, a five-spice stew that should be on everyone’s foggy-day bucket list.
I liked the charred Chinese broccoli with white trumpet mushrooms and roasted sesame ($16), with all the fibrousness beaten out of the stems, and a Cantonese half-chicken ($18) was fairly stunning — especially with the peanut sauce and the little dish of spice powder. The skin peeled away from the meat in the most appetizing manner, and the flesh beneath was barbecued to perfection. The whole thing was shining.
As palate-cleansers go, cucumber skins with garlic and chili ($8) can’t be beat: They’re sufficient to clear any prior oils off your palate, but much bolder than, say, a scoop of herbal granita. There was a second palate cleanser of sorts, a bowl of celtuce (the “mutant lettuce” cultivated for its stems, $8) flecked with tiny bait shrimp to give it a little salt and enhance the natural crunch. The perfect spring-green color, it was dressed in a little too much peanut oil, although that wasn’t the end of the world.
In a nod to Italian cooking’s occasionally fearless approach to olive oil, the roasted red peppers and century egg ($6) were almost surprisingly good. (There’s nothing as simultaneously beautiful and ugly as a century egg, especially when the yolk turns moldy-blue.) This one was sectioned like slices of orange, with a mass of peppers plopped in the center and scallions littered on top.
Even more Italian was the panna cotta ($7), beautifully presented in spite of all its grades of beige. The cassia honey and studded shards barley made it among the best panna cottas I’ve ever had, something all the more remarkable for its lack of caramel or fruit. Get some 8 Treasure Tea ($6 per cup) to balance its richness. Brewed with lotus seed, longan, jasmine pearl, and five other herbs and berries, it’s clean, pure, and probably extremely good for you.
Overall, though, I kept coming back to the sense that China Live isn’t so much effortless as airtight. By that, I mean that there’s an emphasis on wowing and impressing above all else. Because this project was (and is) so behind schedule, everyone with skin in the game is probably anxious that it didn’t open in 2014, when the sky seemed to be the limit for audacious, $20 million endeavors. China Live aspires to technical excellence on the broadest range of things, with intricate garnishes and flair. With almost 100 employees, I imagine there are not just all-staff meetings, but standing subcommittees.
So when it comes to questions about who it’s for (tourists or locals) or whether it’s authentic enough, China Live almost doesn’t have the luxury of answering. Instead, it has to use an atmosphere of luxury to crush them under its weight. I don’t know if something this big can be all things to all people, but in this climate, it has no choice but to try.
China Live, 644 Broadway, 415-788-8188 or chinalive.com