Two-and-a-half years is a long time to work on opening a restaurant. After investing such a chunk of their lives refurbishing a severely deteriorated space at 18th and Mission streets, the team behind the plant-centric eatery-to-be Citizen Fox — who maintained an interim location a few blocks away — abandoned the unfinished project earlier this month. Ouch.
Quince and Bar Agricole alum Brandon Jew, it would seem, had better luck. It took nearly an Olympiad, but his Mister Jiu's is finally open after an even longer gestation period of three-and-a-half years. And the space's past as Four Seas banquet hall is still present, in that the best way to experience stove-free mettle of Jiu's kitchen is his five-course, $69 banquet-style menu.
There are dishes throughout — like roasted quail with lap cheong, sticky rice, jujube, and sorrel — that come across as imaginative updates on Cantonese cooking without being labored or hung up on questions of authenticity. Take the salt-and-pepper squid. With fennel, kumquat, and green chili sauce, it departed about as far from expectations as possible, but it's light on the palate and zesty without any one component hogging too much attention.
I love shu mai and har gow dumplings as much as anyone, but my favorite dim sum nibble has always been turnip cake. (It's great at Good Mong Kok Bakery and better at Mama Ji's.) Mister Jiu's daikon cake, with oil-cured black olives and shiitake mushrooms, blows both of them out of the water by being lighter, snappier, less oily. Pardon the mixed Chinese-Japanese metaphor, but the fried rice — made with beef tenderloin, cured tuna heart, egg, and fried garlic — uncoils with umami without drowning the palate in fat. It's the bites that win on presentation, though. The tea-smoked quail egg is one of the best amuses I've had in awhile, a perfectly composed little morsel of creaminess.
Perhaps as a nod to the long period of good fortune required to make this dream a reality, the $13 cocktails are named auspiciously: Joy, Prosperity, Tranquility, and so on. (Wealth is a particularly good one, a Laphroaig-and-lapsang-souchong combination that starts out at maximum peatiness and then, as the single ice cube melts, takes on an Christmas Eve fireplace cast. Vinegar-y apple shrub works double duty to keep it all acidic and balanced.)
There's also a pared-down bar food menu to go with the. The best thing I tried was the cheong fun, gooey rice noodle rolls with shrimp, cilantro, scallions, and sea urchin that daringly eschew structure and rely on greens for texture instead. If the Santa Barbara sea urchin lacks Hokkaido uni's controlled-demolition way of melting in the mouth, it's still a harmonious dish. More challenging were the BBQ pork buns, which I enjoyed without entirely understanding. (The char siu is dyed redder with beets, for instance.) Served in twos, they reminded me of a savory version of the Drake's Coffee Cakes I remember from growing up, and the use of pork floss — or rousong, which also goes by the deliciously unappealing name “meat wool” — added Cantonese street cred. And the salt-and-vinegar shrimp chips were straight-up gratifying (but take my praise with an asterisk, because I like those garlicky shrimp chips you get on Larkin Street that taste like low tide). The snacks' $8-across-the-board pricing structure makes little sense when comparing the blanched-looking shrimp chips to the elaborate cheong fun, but when you're throwing back Wisdoms and Longevity and staring into Mister Jiu's aquariums, it's easy to lose your cares.
It takes a lot of talent to put this show together. Danny Louie (formerly of Alembic) constructed the cocktail menu, John Herbstritt (from the Divisadero Bi-Rite) handles wine, Huxley veteran Sara Hauman is the sous chef, and Melissa Chou (who came from Mourad and worked with Jew at Quince) is the pastry chef. There are lots of open kitchens in San Francisco, but few like this. It's almost spacious enough to be a test shop for the appliances themselves.
Otherwise, the interior is gaudy in a knowing way, with gold-embossed mah-jongg tiles on the check holders and ceiling fixtures. You can also almost taste the anxiety.
The obvious counterpoint to Mister Jiu's is Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese Food, and since it took so long to assemble the culinary supergroup, it's safe to assume that everything on Jew's menu was tasted and tested and endlessly refined. But more than that, you can sense the sweat equity and worry that went into the very concept. Is it too big? Will enough foodies flock to Chinatown? Is it too much like Mission Chinese? Too weird for tourists? Will the tastemakers and power brokers of Chinatown hate it?
But the hideously lit, aggressively hip Mission Chinese Food has always had its detractors. (It's even been called “a dive.”) No disrespect to Bowien's vision, but Mister Jiu's is leagues beyond MCF in terms of refinement, maybe sacrificing a little extemporaneousness but maintaining that same adventurous spirit.
The space's location is magical, too. While the entrance fronts onto charming, two-block-long Waverly Place, the banquet hall-style dining room looks onto Grant Avenue — from the second floor, above Far East Flea Market. You have a great sightline to what might be the best ghost sign in all of San Francisco: the sun-bleached neon corpse of the Eastern Bakery against a faded brick backdrop. On one of my visits, there were impromptu fireworks on Grant (and Chinese New Year was months ago).
On every visit, these details cohered to form a picture of a restaurant that emerged brick by brick through eons of careful planning to become an instant player. The moment when I realized this was when the server brought a cocktail made with gin, sour apple, gentian, jasmine tea, honey, and lime, and presented it with a self-aware flourish: “Here is your Happiness.”
Yeah, you said it.