The next stage of China Live’s rollout has been completed, so it’s time to head up to the second floor. Although it has been soft open for the past couple of weeks (there are reservations currently available on OpenTable), EIGHT TABLES BY GEORGE CHEN is officially opening on Tuesday October 3rd.
I was invited for a preview dinner last week, and I highly recommend stopping by the new upstairs bar beforehand, Cold Drinks Bar. It’s pretty much the city’s sexiest bar right now, a bit hidden away with its aboveground Chinatown location, so chic and featuring just the right touch of vintage Shanghai glamour. AvroKO does it again with this unique and captivating design. Try heading in there before sunset so you can experience the changing of the evening light in there.
Former beverage director Duggan McDonnell is behind the inventive Scotch-driven cocktail list. Start your evening with the Nothing Sacred or Shanghai Mai Tai while admiring the groovy (baby) mustard leather chairs, handsome bartenders outfitted in their jackets custom made by North Beach’s Al’s Attire, and futuristic details like the gleaming conduit and lighting above. And yes, Mr. McDonnell has sadly moved on to another gig that is going to allow more time for him to be with his family—he is going to be missed. I loved having his cocktails and picks for sherry and wines back in my life.
So, it’s dinnertime. You’re actually supposed to enter Eight Tables from the back alley (Kenneth Rexroth Place) and head upstairs in an elevator, which will then open into a foyer that feels like you stumbled onto a set from In the Mood for Love. There’s a vintage stereo console (you know the kind: a big cabinet with integrated speakers), and we had Miles Davis playing on the record player. There’s a shimmery brushed velvet couch and chair with a Stremaline Moderne vibe, family photographs, and other personal effects that really make you feel like you have been received in George and Cindy Wong-Chen’s home.
You’ll saunter by the wine display, which is getting even more stocked up by the day, and then there’s a little bar nook where bar director Anthony Keels will work his cocktail magic (there are actually bar carts, so expect some mobile moves as well). He was previously the bar director at Saison for three-plus years, and this evening, he wowed us with his smooth house martini, featuring vodka infused with wok-grilled rice, and the Lily Pond, a gin-based cocktail with clarified cucumber water, sorrel, peppercress, and nasturtium. My guest and I had fun hanging out in the two chairs opposite the bar area at the end of our meal for a nightcap. It really built the residential feeling, hanging out like that, but with quite a bit more theater (most people don’t have liquid nitrogen in their home).
The dining room is made of eight nooks for the namesake eight tables, and everything is in a soothing taupe and shell and other natural colors. There are curving booths, and soft lighting, and comfortable chairs made from Northern Chinese elm with woven backs. Since there aren’t any windows, you really feel like you are tucked away in a private space upstairs in some building, and you’re not even sure where or which country. There is a luxurious amount of space and privacy between all the tables, ideal for business meetings or assignations. Your secrets are safe here. There is also a chef’s table in the kitchen ($300, with an optional beverage pairing for $200).
The menu is inspired by shifan tsai (private chateau cuisine), a historic Chinese culinary style that is currently being revitalized in cosmopolitan cities in China like Hong Kong and Shanghai, and even in private homes in Los Angeles. The 10-course, banquet-style menu here ($225) is overseen by George Chen, with chef de cuisine Chi-Feng (Robin) Lin. They will be integrating both ancient and modern techniques with a San Francisco approach, keeping a close eye on seasonality (featuring produce from their close farm relationships and their rooftop garden!) and luxury ingredients as well.
You start with the charming jiu gong ge (nine essential flavors of Chinese cuisine) course, with nine tastes that exhibit flavors from sweet to salty to ma la (numbing/tingling) to bitter, presented in beautiful little colorful dishes. Courses following range from a very subtle Gulf prawn consommé to the intriguing black cod in banana leaf, with little surprises like lotus root and fermented Armenian cucumber/white melon.
A particular highlight for me was the trifecta of Peking duck skin topped with keluga caviar and a sip of my 2011 Louis Roederer rosé Champagne, just wow, and the spoon-tender red-braised pork was also exquisite and cooked to perfection. Like downstairs, pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez is behind the modern/Western desserts.
This is meant to be a preview piece and not a review, but I have to say a few of the dishes left me wanting more wonder and pop, and a touch more finesse at that price point. But I know this is just the very beginning, so I’m looking forward to see how it will evolve in time and what George Chen has up his sleeve. San Francisco has been needing a Chinese fine dining option for too long, and I really want this experience to push the envelope and blow our collective minds. (I know George wants to do that too.)
There are some very thoughtful touches (which I don’t want to give away), and this gold-loving girl got a kick out of the chopsticks holder and many of the beautiful porcelain plates, which were custom made for the restaurant. Lots of elegance in the house.
You can opt for wine and cocktail pairings ($125), with service by sommelier Anthony Kim, most recently of Asia de Cuba. We had a couple fun pours, like Valdespino’s Ojo de Gallo palomino fino and the pét-nat chenin blanc by Haarmeyer Wine Cellars. Starting the meal with J. Lassalle’s 2009 Cuvée Angéline was a fabulous place to begin. (I was pushing for them to add an all-Champagne option, one of my favorites with Chinese food.) The list has some definite baller bottles for those who want to splash out, just check your credit limit before heading over if that’s how you want to roll.
Open for dinner Tue-Sat 5pm-10pm. 8 Kenneth Rexroth Lane, at the corner of Columbus and Vallejo. The entrance to Cold Drinks is via a staircase adjacent to China Live (644 Broadway, between Columbus and Stockton), 415-788-8788.
The swank seating at Cold Drinks Bar. All photos: © tablehopper.com (except where noted).