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The Big Review: A Chinese Chef’s Château

At Eight Tables, reimagined Chinese banquet fare is as sumptuous as the setting—and has the requisite price tag.

SLIDESHOW

An intricate first course represents nine essential flavors of Chinese cuisine.

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One of the restaurant’s eight intimate, tastefully partitioned tables.

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The final dessert course combines passion fruit mousse, seaweed wafers, and mesquite foam.

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If you can’t recall the last time you stumbled on si fang cai, or what George Chen describes as “private château cuisine,” that might be because its roots trace to the Qing dynasty of 17th-century China, whose nobles had a thing for lavish feasts in private homes. Then again, if you’re the type who hangs in moneyed circles in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Beijing, you might have noticed that si fang cai–style restaurants are very much in vogue. Now this opulent style of dining has reached San Francisco, too.

We have Chen to thank for that. The former chef and owner of Betelnut and Shanghai 1930, he’s been a busy man of late. This past winter, he opened China Live, the $20 million Chinatown complex meant to introduce the masses to the vast and varied wonders of Chinese cuisine. As a final refined flourish on the second floor of that project, Chen has now unveiled Eight Tables, which caters to those for whom the masses work. Eating out is always a cost-to-pleasure calculus. Eight Tables turns that computation into long division. At $225 per person for a three-hour-long, 10-course prix fixe dinner—plus $125 for an optional wine pairing—the final tab for two can fast approach four figures. Whether you find that reasonable depends on your financial muscle and the delight you take in extravagant dining. As a freelance omnivore who hasn’t had a raise in (ahem!) more than a decade, I’m still working out the math.

What I can say for certain is that Eight Tables offers a high-end, hidden-away experience that’s unlike what you’ll find at any other restaurant in the city. Even the way you get there stands out: down an alleyway off Columbus Avenue, through an unmarked metal gate, then up an elevator to an upstairs setting so serene, secret, and swish it could serve as a Bond villain’s sanctum. In fact, it’s a foyer, with framed portraits on the wall of Chen as a boy with his parents and grandparents. Welcome to the chef’s château.

True to its name, the restaurant has eight tables (nine if you count the $300-per-person chef’s table in the kitchen), all tastefully partitioned by blond wood walls in a chocolate-, cream-, and cinnamon-toned dining room. The largest of the tables have copper-inlaid lazy Susans, but, as you’ve likely gathered, this is not the sort of sleeves-up Chinese banquet at which you and your companions spin and counterspin until someone spills the tea into the hot-and-sour soup.

Here soft jazz fills the air, ebony chopsticks click over bespoke porcelain plates, and the first course contains nine tiny dishes, chilled and arranged in rows of three. These represent Chen’s riff on the five traditional flavors of Chinese cuisine: spicy, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. While those five find expression in creative forms—sweet is a jujube glazed in chrysanthemum honey; salty is poached chicken, rolled and stuffed with salted duck egg; and so on—Chen has tacked on numbing, nutty, sharp, and smoky. Nine turns out to be a pleasing opening number, and a playful introduction to the show.

The star of the next act is the Four Seas dumpling, an embellishment on the har gow you might get at your local dim sum joint if that dim sum were to roll up in a Bentley. An elegant purse, plump with shrimp mousse and ringed by microgreens and uni, it has four pouches on top filled, respectively, with trout roe, osetra caviar, crème fraîche, and chives. A mother-of-pearl spoon and knife are provided as classy implements of attack. But if you simply popped the dumpling into your mouth, it would go down just as well.

Along with his extended list of Chinese flavors, Chen is out to spotlight traditional Chinese techniques. Which brings us, post-dumpling, to barbecue, three ways. One is Peking duck skin, crisp and tracing-paper thin, dotted with caviar and set over a shrimp chip; another is a tiny crackling pork belly sandwich; and the third is a rendition of char siu–style barbecued pork, prepared, in a twist, with Ibérico shoulder steak.

The char siu is sticky, smoky, sweet, and crimson tinged. That it is reminiscent of less-pedigreed versions of the dish points, I think, to the biggest challenge before Eight Tables. With his elevated survey of Chinese banquet dining, Chen conjures a range of tastes and textures that will ring familiar to almost every diner. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that it prompts price-to-pleasure breakdowns—just the sort of numbers game that restaurants of this cost don’t always win.

Consider, for instance, the seafood consommé, a delicate and delicious soup stocked with glassy noodles and a chestnut-and-prawn ball. It came with a seaweed-wrapped gulf prawn on the side—but also a dose of common-noodle-house déjà vu. And the velvet chicken caught my attention not just with the Burgundy truffles slivered on top but also because it was much blander than the velvet chicken I thought I knew.

Granted, dinner isn’t all you’re shelling out for at Eight Tables. There’s the theater, the understated beauty of the ambience, and the choreographed precision of the service. You’re also paying—let’s be clear—for some singular dishes, including the black cod, steamed in a banana leaf with ginger, bamboo, lotus root, and cabbage, and, more astounding still, a cube of red-cooked pork was braised. They say money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy this pork belly, and I think I’d rather have that anyway. Money also gets you a wine pairing that’s as thoughtful as any I’ve encountered in the city, from the ethereal Perrier-Jouët champagne that gets things going to the madeira that marries with the closing course, a superb composition of passion fruit mousse, seaweed wafers, and a frothy cloud of smoked mesquite foam.

Before Eight Tables, I’d never had mesquite foam. I’d also never been to a si fang cai–style restaurant. Chen believes there are no others in the United States. He attributes their resurgence in China to staggering concentrations of private wealth under a regime that frowns on open displays of opulence. Hence the popularity of underground feasts.

In San Francisco these days, under the sway of Silicon Valley money, a similar ethos applies. It’s fashionable for the super-rich to slum it at trendy fast-casual joints—but even more fashionable to indulge in exclusive supper clubs, high-priced omakases, and other experiences that require a lot of dough but not a lot of show. Not the Qing dynasty, maybe, but fertile territory for si fang cai dining to arrive and thrive.

The Ticket: A recommended for two at Eight Tables
Prix fixe per person . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $225
Eight Tables: Jiu Gong Ge (nine essential flavors of Chinese cuisine), Four Seas dumpling, shao kao (barbecue), gulf prawn consommé, black cod in banana leaf, velvet chicken, red Dongpo pork, foie gras pot sticker, chrysanthemum granita, Chinese Sea Grass
Wine pairing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $125
Total for two . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $700

Eight Tables
8 Kenneth Rexroth Pl. (At Columbus Ave.), 415-788-8788
3 Stars

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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