The gist: When the massive (and massively hyped) China Live — a 30,000-square-foot complex at the border of Chinatown and North Beach — finally opened to the public earlier this year, it wasn't unveiled all at once. The ground-floor’s shop, cafe and restaurant came first, followed in the summer by the scotch-centric Cold Drinks Bar on the second floor. Now, executive chef–founder George Chen (owner of several Shanghai concepts and San Francisco's much-missed Betelnut) is ready to unveil the signature piece of the puzzle: Eight Tables, an ultra-luxe restaurant and bar with a focus on upscale Chinese dishes and ambitious tasting menus. It shares the second floor with Cold Drinks and a private dining area.
All photographs by Allie Foraker
The food: The 10-course, $225-per-person tasting menu was created by Chen and chef de cuisine Robin Lin (once the youngest director of Taiwan's chef association). The food is rooted in the philosophy of Shifan Tsai (“private chateau cuisine”) and gently influenced by California’s unique ingredients and seasons. The order of dishes is based on the sequence used during the Song Dynasty (10th–12th centuries) and adds up to an elaborate banquet not wildly different from the Japanese kaiseki style San Franciscans are used to. The meal starts with a series of nine small cold dishes before seven more savory courses.
The opening "Nine Essential Flavors of Chinese Cuisine" cold dishes
There's a caviar dumpling service, then a barbecue dish and a soup. After three more substantial courses comes an assortment of rice, noodles and pastries, meant as a transition to pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez’s closing desserts. Villavelazquez is a student of SF dessert legend Elizabeth Faulkner, including many years working at her restaurant Orson, and is now a pastry instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Banana leaf steamed black cod, bamboo pith cannelloni and cabbage purse
Chen's spacious kitchen is influenced by classic Western and Chinese techniques, with a strong contemporary edge. Here, woks share space with dehydrating and spherification tools as well as the Hestan French top burners en vogue in luxe kitchens. The goal isn’t just to raise the bar for Chinese fine dining in San Francisco; Chen aspires to be amongst the Bay Area’s most elite dining destinations.
Velvet chicken, Burgundy truffles and matsutake with soya veal jus
The drinks: Cocktails are designed by beverage director Anthony Keels, most recently Saison’s bar manager. (Several others, including general manager Andrew Fuentes, also hail from Saison.) Keels is following a similar “culinary-based bar program," using unique savory ingredients, kitchen-style prep methods and savory presentations (think: a Lily Pad Cocktail served in an elegant bowl with floating flowers). As with the food, Keels’ drinks draw from upscale Chinese culture and traditions. His Alluvial Fan cocktail was inspired by the upper-class practice of literally eating green tea leaves after drinking them: Dragon Well tea is tossed with XO sauce, served on a spoon, and paired with an elegant cup of Kavalan Classic Taiwan whiskey and clarified green melon juice. The house martini highlights the highest grade of white rice, which is wok-grilled then added to vodka and lemon oil in the Guanyin's Cup. Tableside preparations from a roving bar cart are a key part of the cocktail experience, as are Keels’ amaros and vintage spirits.
The Alluvial Fan cocktail
On the wine side, director Tony Kim oversees a cellar with labels coming from California and all over the world, seeking to debunk the myth that Rieslings are the only decent pairing for the powerful flavors of Chinese cooking (the barbecue course comes with lambrusco, for example). Diners can opt for $125 wine pairings with their meal that will also include some cocktails.
The space: As the name suggests, there are indeed eight tables of various sizes in the posh space designed by AvroKO (2017 James Beard Design award-winners for Single Thread). The effect is like dining in the home of a wealthy second-generation Chinese-American merchant in Hong Kong or Shanghai. Traditional high-end Chinese touches (like a grand residential front door, carpets with Chinese motifs and wedding gown fabrics) meet contemporary details (digitally modified sepia portraits of Chen's family). A distinct midcentury personality also shines through, via the bar cart and 1950s-era lounge chairs and jazz music. Unlike China Live, with its prominent, unmistakable Broadway entrance, Eight Tables is discreetly accessed from a back alley, another nod to the typical luxury apartments in crowded Shanghai and Hong Kong. Diners take a service elevator to the second floor — and then step into luxury for an hour or three.
The details: 8 Kenneth Rexroth Lane; 415-788-8788; open for dinner Tuesday–Saturday, 5–10 PM.