When China Live opened last year, I admit I was skeptical. It seemed too grandiose and physically large, out of place with a chastened dining scene littered with the corpses of ambitious megaprojects and newly swamped with tightly focused fast-casual eateries. Founder and Executive Chef George Chen’s mix of restaurant and retail felt three years too late, and I didn’t think it would appeal to visitors and locals (Asian-American or otherwise).
I was wrong. China Live proved technically excellent and vigorous enough to fill all those seats night after night, and the new pain point in the scene appears not to be a particular type of restaurant, but a geographical location — specifically, Valencia Street. Meanwhile, Chen’s project filled itself out. Futuristic cocktail lounge Cold Drinks followed the main restaurant beneath, and now there is Eight Tables, an ultra-luxe room on the top floor that’s modeled on si fang cai, or private-chateau cuisine, newly popular in urban China as the affluent nation rediscovers its culinary heritage after decades of privation.
Here, the ambition seems almost geopolitical in scale. Throughout the meal, I kept thinking that Eight Tables intends to show up on the radar screens of visiting East Asian dignitaries. Consequently, the 10-course tasting menu ($225) with optional wine or beverage pairings ($125/$165) means dinner for two is essentially a $1,000 affair. Only in a warped city where $3,300 one-bedroom apartments fall below the median price could that be construed as a bargain, but it is certainly a fair value.
There were a couple clunkers on an eve-of-Lunar New Year visit, moments when the construction or brazen opulence of a given dish pushed its actual taste to the rear. And it should be noted that at these price points, it’s fair to grade harshly. But overall, Eight Tables achieves and sustains a level of excellence without interrupting the smooth pace it sets, prizing discretion to the point where it can feel as though yours table is the only table in there. It’s not stiff or icy, and the theatrics are dignified. If you go late — 8:30 on a weeknight, so the host locks the gate on the noirish alley behind you — you might get multiple staffers happily nerding out with you about how they procured the last few cases of a given wine until they become so self-conscious that they retreat. But who doesn’t enjoy hearing knowledgeable people speak about what they love most?
It all started with a grid of jiu gong ge, or “nine essential flavors of Chinese cuisine,” along with a 2009 Cuvee Angeline Brut, citrusy and with a cookie-like finish. The nine bites are referential, not monotone, among them a smelt smoked in a wok until it’s very crunchy, a radicchio that tempers its bitterness with the sweetness of a ginkgo nut, and a scallop that’s been poached for 30 quick seconds. Drunken chicken wrapped around a duck egg was the best, particularly for how it coats the mouth and puts the Champagne to the test, but a nutty, gooey jujubee wasn’t far behind.
That’s about as fun of an opener as you’ll find anywhere — why start with one or two little things presented in sequence? — and what follows is a seafood dumpling quartet made with golden osetra caviar, sea urchin, Monterey uni, and bay scallop. (The mesmerizingly iridescent flatware fashioned from a single piece of shell is some serious klepto-bait, too.) This would have been a great opportunity for a markedly different Champagne or otherwise sparkling pairing. Instead, the wine was a William Fevre Chablis that buckled and the cocktail was a garnish-free toasted rice martini with a lengthy, 48-hour process behind it that tasted inexplicably of commercial watermelon flavoring.
An inverted siu yuk sandwich for the barbecue course came opposite sturgeon and duck skin plus pear and a sort of pan-citrus confit with mandiquats and other curios in it, all of them wonders. The wine and cocktail pairings converged in a Lambrusco that wasn’t the least bit sweet, a good idea and also part of wine director Tony Kim’s personal quest to rehabilitate that widely disparaged grape. An off-dry Alsatian Muscat followed, a commendable pairing for a lobster-and-rice soup on an unfortunate gold spoon.
Maybe it’s because I continue to trash-talk Nobu Palo Alto to anyone who will listen, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Eight Tables’ black cod in a banana leaf pouch with an exquisitely tender lotus root was a clearing-of-the-throat directed that way. On aroma alone, it’s the winner; for taste and texture, there’s no contest. The cocktail for that course was a cucumber-y bowl of Martin Miller gin meant to evoke a pond of lily pads. Each leaf had a salty droplet of “forest water” on it, like a glycerin tear on a matinee idol’s cheek — another knockout.
Velvet chicken was arguably the only unimaginative course. The velvet is egg, and no amount of black truffle or even the pesto-flecked dough rosette is going to rescue these scrambled eggs from what they are. However, earthy tea notes in the Henry Fussy Crus du Beaujolais cozied up nicely next to the au jus, so there was a nice level of harmony there.
An absolutely phenomenal Napa Cabernet with a gong-like finish — from VinRoc, a winery that suffered greatly in last year’s fires, sadly — appeared next. It could have been presented with a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger and I would have still turned to jelly in the booth, but its pairing was a cerebral, elaborate dongpo pork dish that I didn’t quite comprehend. There was a bowtie pasta of sorts ringing a quail egg with pork belly that was almost entirely fat, plus Brussels sprouts and chunks of beet and a separate bowl of fried rice. Visually and via the palate, it’s hard not to see the quail egg as the focal point — and while I don’t mean to beat it up too hard, it lacked unity and a sense of climax, especially after that Cab.
The last three courses stepped down from meats into pure sweetness. A foie gras potsticker, cleverly disguised behind a fancy chip, complemented a bowl of laba congee (a dish so beloved, it has its own festival in China, which took place last week). To hold the richness in check — there was black sesame dumpling in the porridge, too — a Dragon’s Head cider from Washington State did the trick. After a palate cleanser of fermented rice sorbet with goji berries and goji berry vinegar, a luscious, 20-year-old tawny port came out with an array of sweets. In the battle of creative wits that characterizes the art of the check presenter, Eight Tables paper-clips the bill to 20th-century Chinese money, a clever visual joke.
Potential overambition is what gave me pause about China Live, but it’s channeled through the right sluiceway here. The Michelinistas’ identities are closely guarded, but with a few notable exceptions — chiefly Benu — the guide evinces an enduring bias toward Europe over Asia. It’s hard not to determine that Chen’s desire isn’t so much for Eight Tables to win some stars, although there is that, but to orchestrate a sort of rejiggering of world opinion toward the upper echelon of Chinese cuisine. I was a little too skeptical of China Live, but I’m not skeptical anymore.
Eight Tables, 8 Kenneth Rexroth Place, 415-788-8788 or chinalivesf.com