Last week, I had the opportunity to tour and experience a preview meal at LEADER HOUSE, the somewhat mysterious new project opening in the former Payne Mansion on Sutter Street. It’s a beautiful and grand building, built in 1881—perhaps you have attended an event there (it has most recently been used as a private event space). The new owner is Jing Yao, who explained the unusual name stems from their original property, the Leader Hotel in Changsha (the capital of the Hunan Province), the same city where Chairman Mao Zedong began his political career. Yao further explains: “Leader is our company name for over 20 years. The original Chinese meaning 立达人 dates back to the Song Dynasty and originally stood for the art of mentoring staff to be both warm and hardworking. These virtues create the truest sense of hospitality.” Let me tell you, Ms. Yao just isn’t saying these things—the team really takes the art of hospitality very seriously. The Leader Hotel has three different restaurants, so this isn’t the team’s first time running a restaurant either.
Walking into the building is a jaw-dropping experience. There is no dining room in the city like this one, and it’s a unique intersection of a high-end Chinese restaurant in a historic mansion. Dining in a ballroom, why not? The kitchen and private dining rooms are on the basement/ground level (the Peony and Lotus rooms each have room for 18), while the main dining room (with room for 150) and bar/lounge area are on the first floor.
The Payne Mansion is so spacious that there are 10 luxury suites on the third and fourth floors, each with their own look, from Japanese-inspired to French colonial, with different carpets and wallpaper in each room—all have top-of-the-line beds. The Yorbarn investment group was originally looking at the project as solely a hotel investment, but ultimately decided to open a restaurant in the space as well. Yao said they spent $4 million on the update, and since the building is a landmark, you can only imagine everything they had to go through permit-wise.
So, the cuisine. The kitchen is led by the charismatic executive chef Leo Leong, who has a background in restaurant management as well as a chef (specializing in French and Italian), spanning eight years at the Westin St. Francis, plus running his own restaurant in Macau, and doing R&D for Sky Chefs. The primary chef, chef Chen, is 52 and from Hunan, and has been cooking since he was 16 (he even cooked in Germany). The menu includes Hunanese and Cantonese dishes, 100 in all, with 40-50 entrées (take a look at the “Taste of Hunan” menu here). There will be three kinds of whole fish (black bass, black cod, and red snapper), and a tank for live fish. Some Hunanese elements include aging proteins for three weeks—there’s a dish with three steamed “preserved” meats (fish, chicken, and pork). Look for lots of pork on the menu, and the chile sauce fish will be a trademark.
I experienced a preview tasting menu that included some Cantonese dishes (like a delicate fish maw and crabmeat soup and fried duck jaw with Maggi sauce), and some brilliant Hunanese dishes, including a steamed fish head with chile sauce and black beans (the head is marinated and then hot oil is poured over it; you won’t believe the incredible texture and flavor of this dish, which wasn’t too spicy—it was juuuust right), steamed spareribs (check out the bird in the pic) that are cooked and served in a bamboo trunk (I so enjoyed the thick, flavorful sauce), Xiang-style squid with chives and sesame oil (probably some of the most tender squid I’ve ever had), and the Xiang-style potatoes (I kept returning to these—so simple in their flavor, but so satisfying). The kitchen also sent out some onion cakes with pork, and steamed bao stuffed with pork, shiitake, and ginger. It was such a delicious meal I can’t wait to return and experience a banquet meal with friends.
One thing that really struck me was how gracious everyone was. It bodes well for the experience dining there—the team was warm and accommodating, and are very eager to please. During the soft opening, prices will be discounted a notch, and there will also be some special offers for neighbors. Follow their Facebook page for updates.
Beer and wine will be served for now, and full liquor will be coming later. Leader House will be open for lunch 11:30am-2:30pm, happy hour 4pm-7pm (10 items will be available on the menu, like the onion cake and duck jaw, get both), and dinner 5:30pm-10:30pm. Soft opening is Friday December 20th, starting with lunch service. For the first two weeks, Leader House is reservations only (no walk-ins). 1409 Sutter St. at Franklin, 415-352-2222.
The exterior of Leader House (in the Payne Mansion). Photo: © tablehopper.com.