Eight Tables video by Vic Chin

An elaborate 10-course tasting menu invites diners into the world of shi fan tsai, private chateau-style dining.

Chinese cuisine is known for elaborate banquet spreads, and private dining is the elite flipside of the social hierarchy. Banquets tend to feature an array of different foods, often heavy, concluding with lots of rice, noodles and other starches in case you didn’t get your fill from proteins and other more expensive foods. Shi fan tsai, on the other hand, is what you might be offered at the home of a wealthy family with a private chef: many small courses, plated individually, coursed out over a leisurely evening.

Table setting at Eight Tables
Table setting at Eight Tables (Wendy Goodfriend)

The entrance to Eight Tables is on Kenneth Rexroth Lane in San Francisco’s Chinatown, an alley in back of a wrought-iron gate. After fighting for parking, we were greeted at the gate by two young women in black dresses. I looked to my left, and the woman asked, “May I see your prescription?” I looked to my right, and the other woman said, “Are you here to visit Eight Tables?” Relief.

Entrance to Eight Tables
Entrance to Eight Tables (Wendy Goodfriend)

An elevator ride to the second floor delivers us to another world, one of timeless, restrained decadence.

An elevator takes you upstairs to the dining area
An elevator takes you upstairs to the dining area (Wendy Goodfriend)

Executive Chef George Chen is well known for his legendary Betelnut restaurant in the Marina District, which closed in 2015 after a 20-year run, as well as the upscale Shanghai 1930 in the Financial District, which closed in 2010, and several other San Francisco and Shanghai restaurants. China Live is Chen’s 20,000-square-foot Chinese food emporium, along the lines of Eataly in New York (and now Chicago and Boston). Other players on this star-studded team include two Saison alums, Andrew Fuentes at the front of the house and mixologist Andrew Keels behind the bar. Tony Kim, most recently of the Redwood Room at The Clift Hotel, leads the wine program. Luis Villavelazquez, formerly of Absinthe, is the mastermind of the elaborate dessert creations to come.

Chef George Chen
Chef George Chen (Wendy Goodfriend)

The luxurious Eight Tables space, on the second floor of China Live, all cream and golden in hue, was designed by AvroKO, which won a 2017 James Beard Award for Single Thread in Healdsburg.

In the reception lounge, we were offered warm towels as we took off our coats. Behind us hung a large-format, crisply focused photo of Chen and his parents, the kind of photograph you might see in the private home of a family of means in China.

Reception area with photo of George Chen and his parents.
Reception area with photo of George Chen and his parents. (Wendy Goodfriend)

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As we were escorted to our seats, we paused at the bar to ooh and aah at the mobile cart where Keels stands at the ready to dispense a cocktail. We had decided to do the wine pairings instead, designed by sommelier Kim to highlight the range of possibilities for pairing wine with classic Chinese flavors, a practice that isn’t terribly common.

Cocktail utensils atop rabbit fur at the mobile bar.
Cocktail utensils atop rabbit fur at the mobile bar. (Wendy Goodfriend)

One stunning detail is the textured walls. Chef Chen explains that the process involved using antique fabric from Chinese wedding dresses, pressed into wet plaster, and allowed to partially dry—enough to leave the pattern behind, while not tearing the material.

Textured walls were made using fabric from antique Chinese wedding dresses.
Textured walls were made using fabric from antique Chinese wedding dresses. (Wendy Goodfriend)

There are eight tables in the graciously appointed room, a number considered to be the luckiest in Chinese culture. Servers in fawn-colored suits appear and disappear in choreographed, ballet-like motion throughout the night.

One of the eight tables
One of the eight tables (Wendy Goodfriend)
Courses are presented in a choreographed manner. Mixologist Andrew Keels (L) and general manager Andrew Fuentes (R) participated in serving the meal.
Courses are presented in a choreographed manner. Mixologist Andrew Keels (L) and general manager Andrew Fuentes (R) participated in serving the meal. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Chen’s cooking, further developed and executed by Chef de Cuisine Robin Lin, translates this luxury to gathering at table for a lyrical and carefully crafted meal.

Jiu gong ge, or nine essential flavors, is the name of the first course, and from a sensory perspective, it’s a microcosm of the other nine courses to follow, as it represents the full spectrum of possible flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, numbing, spicy, nutty, sharp, and smoky. Each elegant bite is plated on dishes made for just the occasion and arranged in a complex numerology that forms a lo shu grid, which adds up to 15 vertically, horizontally and diagonally, considered very lucky, even magical.

Jiu Gong Ge - Nine Essential Flavors
Jiu Gong Ge – Nine Essential Flavors (Wendy Goodfriend)

You will have your favorite of the bites, as well as a logic for proceeding through them. The four people at our table all chose different paths through the maze. One preferred to save the sweet jujube stuffed with glutinous rice and chickpea hearts for the last bite, while another preferred to end with a local anchovy wok-smoked with black sugar and tea. We all placed the ma (numbing) and la (spicy), often combined, but distinct dishes here, in the middle of the experience. Each dish represented its category precisely and creatively. My own favorites were the “sharp” clam marinated in soy sauce with ginger and scallions and the gelatin of pork shank with (sour) vinegar and thin slices of ginger. The strangest and most interesting was a little (nutty) roulade of nori and yuba (tofu noodles). A tiny stack of bitter melon slices was bracing, as intended.

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The wine selected for pairing with this course was the sparkling Cuvée Angeline Brut Champagne from J. Lassalle, whose crisp brightness stands up to the intense flavors and whose sweetness gives ballast to the spicier end of things.

Sommelier Tony Kim pours Cuvée Angeline Brut Champagne from J. Lassalle
Sommelier Tony Kim pours Cuvée Angeline Brut Champagne from J. Lassalle (Wendy Goodfriend)

Perhaps the unanimous favorite dish of the night, course number two was a four-pronged shrimp dumpling topped with Osetra caviar, trout roe, sour cream topped with finger lime, and scallions, all in their respective quadrants and surrounded by micro-greens and Santa Barbara sea urchin on the plate.

Four Seas Dumpling - Russian Golden Osetra, Sea Urchin, Heirloom Salad
Four Seas Dumpling – Russian Golden Osetra, Sea Urchin, Heirloom Salad (Wendy Goodfriend)

A brilliant wine pairing was the unusual Palomino Fino from Valdespino, essentially unfortified sherry. It’s dry, but with a glimmer of sherry-toned fruit sweetness.

Barbecue “Shao Kao” features Kaluga caviar farmed in China! Though most diners might not have heard of it, this sturgeon caviar is being served by Lufthansa in its first-class cabins and has been vetted for sustainability and cleanliness (as China isn’t always known for environmental practices). Iberico pork (rather than the ham most of us are familiar with) is served chashu style alongside crispy duck skin and amazing little pearls of apple caviar made by Chen’s wife, Cindy.

Barbecue “Shao Kao” - Kaluga on Peking Duck Skin, Iberico Char Siu
Barbecue “Shao Kao” – Kaluga on Peking Duck Skin, Iberico Char Siu (Wendy Goodfriend)
Mini pork sandwich
Mini pork sandwich (Wendy Goodfriend)

The wine course here was a dry Lambrusco, the sparkling Italian red wine that has reclaimed its rightful place at the table over the last decade.

After much intensity on the palate, a gentler course comes next: gulf prawn consommé with glass noodles, a prawn ball and single peppery nasturtium leaf, paired with a Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley (Nielson by Byron), buttery to the consommé’s salty sweetness. A whole fried shrimp wrapped in sea grass comes on the side; I could’ve eaten a bowl of just these.

Gulf Prawn Consommé - Glass Noodles, Prawn Ball, Nasturtium
Gulf Prawn Consommé – Glass Noodles, Prawn Ball, Nasturtium (Wendy Goodfriend)
Fried shrimp wrapped in sea grass.
Fried shrimp wrapped in sea grass. (Wendy Goodfriend)

The other contender for my personal favorite dish was a Norwegian cod steamed in banana leaf with pickled white melon and bamboo “cannelloni” tucked inside, a slice of earthy-crisp lotus root on the bottom. The Champagne comes back out for this course—something I adore about this restaurant, sommelier Kim’s willingness to move in non-linear ways throughout the pairings—a Gosset Brut, classic non-vintage bubbly with notes of Fall fruits and tropical florals.

Black Cod Wrapped in Banana Leaf - Picked White Melon, Bamboo 'Cannelloni'
Black Cod Wrapped in Banana Leaf – Picked White Melon, Bamboo ‘Cannelloni’ (Wendy Goodfriend)

Velvet chicken, the next course, is surely unlike any version you’ve ever tried, made here with early-season truffles from Burgundy and matsutake mushrooms with veal jus. We dip into red wine with a Fleurie Crus Beaujolais by Henry Fessy, fruit-forward and high-toned.

It comes with a handmade savory dumpling, much like a dinner roll in a Western restaurant.

Velvet Chicken - Burgundy Truffles, Trumpet Mushrooms, Veal Jus
Velvet Chicken – Burgundy Truffles, Trumpet Mushrooms, Veal Jus (Wendy Goodfriend)
Handmade savory dumpling
Handmade savory dumpling (Wendy Goodfriend)

I was, at this point, quite honestly full, but I persisted on to the red braised pork, a rectangle of long-cooked meat with crispy skin served with a tea egg, fava beans and little strands of yuba noodles tied up into knots. A bowl of fried rice with tiny pieces of egg and a crisped-rice garnish is served alongside. The sweetness of this dish requires a bigger red wine, and the Peter Michael Les Pavots Bordeaux Blend did the job, refusing to be overwhelmed by the sweetness, but also not obscuring it.

Red Braised Pork - Tea Egg, Fava Beans, Tofu Knots
Red Braised Pork – Tea Egg, Fava Beans, Tofu Knots (Wendy Goodfriend)
A bowl of fried rice with tiny pieces of egg and a crisped-rice garnish.
A bowl of fried rice with tiny pieces of egg and a crisped-rice garnish. (Wendy Goodfriend)

Perhaps the most clever and successful pairing of all was the Hudson Valley foie gras potsticker in beef noodle soup alongside a quite surprising wine choice: a pétillant naturel Chenin Blanc made in the little-known AVA of Clarksburg in, of all places, the Sacramento Valley (Haarmeyer Wine Cellars, St. Rey). But work it did, the rather funky, sweet-toned but crisp, lightly bubbly wine in harmony with the equally funky but directionally opposite duck liver.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras Potsticker - Beef Noodle Soup
Hudson Valley Foie Gras Potsticker – Beef Noodle Soup (Wendy Goodfriend)
Hudson Valley Foie Gras Potsticker
Hudson Valley Foie Gras Potsticker

Two dessert courses by Villavelaquez wrap up the meal, the first a palate cleanser of chrysanthemum granita with yogurt and preserved plum, and the latter a strange tour-de-force of mesquite bubbles with fried seaweed and passion fruit cream. The seaweed and passion fruit made a beautiful marriage, while the mesquite foam went a long way on aroma alone. Its taste was perhaps more overwhelming than intended, but it worked as an aromatic accompaniment. The last glass of the night was a discrete counterpoint among the sweet-savory-smoky elements: a Madeira from The Rare Wine Co., a Charleston Sercial named for the Southern U.S. city where the dry style of Madeira caught on in the early 19th century.

Chrysanthemum Granita - Yogurt, Preserved Plum
Chrysanthemum Granita – Yogurt, Preserved Plum (Wendy Goodfriend)
Chinese Sea Grass - Passion Fruit, Mesquite Bubbles
Chinese Sea Grass – Passion Fruit, Mesquite Bubbles (Wendy Goodfriend)

The check comes stashed in the pages of a book by the aforementioned Kenneth Rexroth, an eminent translator of Chinese poetry, coming back around full-circle to the alley entrance that bears his name.

The check is delivered in a Kenneth Rexroth book.
The check is delivered in a Kenneth Rexroth book. (Wendy Goodfriend)

We were sent home with beautiful boxes of microbatch bonbons by Oakland chocolatier Karen Urbanek, stamped with symbols representing the four winds, and chopsticks with our names stamped into the enamel.

Microbatch bonbons by Oakland chocolatier Karen Urbanek
Microbatch bonbons by Oakland chocolatier Karen Urbanek (Wendy Goodfriend)
Chocolates stamped with symbols representing the four winds.
Chocolates stamped with symbols representing the four winds. (Wendy Goodfriend)

And so we were carried out that evening and swept back in to the bustling streets of the city and our busy lives, taking with us the memory of culinary completeness—and full for days.

Eight Tables
Eight Tables (Wendy Goodfriend)

Eight Tables
8 Kenneth Rexroth Place
San Francisco, CA  94133 [Map]
Ph: (415) 788-8788
Hours: Dinner, Tue-Sat, 5:30pm-9:30pm
Price Range: $$$$ (tasting menu $225; wine pairings $125)
Facebook: China Live
Twitter: @ChinaLiveSF
Instagram: @chinalivesf

Master Chef George Chen Opens Eight Tables, China Live’s Crown Jewel 17 October,2017Kim Westerman

Author

Kim Westerman

Kim Westerman has been writing about food and wine for most of her adult life. Originally from North Carolina, she moved to Berkeley in 2006 to pursue the California dream, which, it turns out, is all it’s cracked up to be. She’s a farmers’ market junkie, a lover of all things tomato, and Champagne-obsessed. She loves to cook with her kids, eight and three, and she makes frequent pilgrimages to International Boulevard in search of her next favorite Mexican dish. She spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about food and wine pairing, often starting with the wine and working backwards when planning menus. She is a Level I Sommelier and a Licensed Q-Grader. Her work has appeared in KQED’s Bay Area Bites, Forbes.com, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Tasting Table, Fodor’s Travel Guides, and lots of other publications. You can follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram @throughtraveler.

Author

Wendy Goodfriend

I am the Senior Interactive Producer for KQED Food. I have designed and produced food-related websites and blogs for KQED including Bay Area Bites; Check, Please! Bay Area;  Taste This; Jacques Pepin’s websites; Weir Cooking in the City and KQED Food. When I am not creating and managing food websites I am taking photos and video of Bay Area Life and designing online navigation systems. My professional education and training includes: clinical psychology, photography, commercial cooking, web design, information architecture and UX. You can find me engaged in social media on Twitter @bayareabites and on Facebook at Bay Area Bites. I can also be found photoblogging at look2remember.

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