Birthday Weekend in San Francisco – Day 1

9 Jun

If anyone actually remembers the teaser I wrote a million years ago, yes I really did spend some time in San Francisco earlier this year.  I ate a lot of great food and wrote a dozen or so pages of tasting notes, then stashed those notes away and traded my blogging time for study time as the weeks leading up to finals were just cruel this past semester at school.  Then, I went on an eating frenzy in China for the two weeks between spring and summer semesters, during which the Sichuan earthquake re-routed my plans.  But more on China later, I’m back and talking about San Francisco.

We spent the entire morning of our first day in San Francisco trekking the hilly streets of downtown, spending most of the time in Chinatown.

Established in the 1850’s, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the United States and a tourist must on every visitor’s itinerary.  However, from a pure food perspective, the best Chinese food in the Bay Area is not found in Chinatown.  Concentrated Asian communities have sprouted up in the Sunset district and nearby cities of Milpitas and Daly City, to name a few, and brought newer, better restaurants with them.  But coming from Dallas, where the concentrated immigrant communities are comparatively newer and less dense, old San Francisco Chinatown felt like a whole different world.

We started our morning with traditional Chinese breakfast at Hing Lung (674 Broadway at Stockton, San Francisco), a hole-in-the-wall popular with locals.  Breakfast prices are so cheap they border on ridiculous (specials like congee and noodle bowls start at $2.50).  For a light start (we knew we’d been having dim sum at lunch), three of us shared the following items:

 

Yu tiao: Oblong Chinese fried donut that Hing Lung has cut into bite-sized pieces (well, bite sized for those with large mouths).  The airy donuts have the texture of funnel cake and range from unseasoned to slightly salted.  A traditional Chinese breakfast snack, yu tiao is often consumed with a bowl of congee (rice porridge) or soy milk.  In our case, a bowl of egg, chicken, and corn congee.

 

Congee is the reason most people come to Hing Lung as it seems every table in the joint had a bowl on its table.  Another Chinese breakfast classic, Hing Lung does congee justice with the right consistency (based on rice to water/broth ratio) and flavorful broth.  To round out breakfast, an order of dried shrimp rice noodle roll (cheung fun) and more yu tiao (it was so nice we ordered it twice).

I’ve had better cheung fun, but not for $2.50.  The environment at Hing Lung may be shabby without any chic, but it’s hard to argue with its solid Cantonese breakfast comfort foods at 1980’s prices.

We spent the rest of the morning wandering around Chinatown, stopping at all the “landmark” shops and feeling submerged into the immigrant culture that seems frozen in the 1950’s and 60’s, when San Francisco Chinatown had its last immigrant population boom.  Suburban flight in the last few decades has left downtown Chinatown primarily to the elderly, the poor, and the tourists. 

Our Chinatown walking tour included stops at The Wok Shop (718 Grant Ave, San Francisco), offering woks, steamers, and cleavers of all sizes as well as novelty aprons and kitchen knits with printed witty sayings like “Wok on the Wild Side,”

Ten Ren’s Tea (949 Grant Ave, San Francisco, locations nationwide including one in Houston) with its massive collection of teas,

Golden Gate Bakery (1029 Grant Ave, San Francisco), for its fragrant selection of freshly baked Cantonese style-treats like egg custard tarts, moon cakes, and BBQ pork (char-siu) buns,

and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company on narrow Ross Alley (56 Ross Alley, San Francisco), where cranky old Chinese ladies press hot circular discs into fortune cookies and charge you 50 cents if you want to take a photo.

Touristy?  Oh yeah.  But I have to say, those fortune cookies are good when they’re hot, especially the chocolate ones (yes there are chocolate flavored fortune cookies).

At the end of our Chinatown self-routed walking tour, we had ended up on the northern edge of Chinatown, where a rowdy dim sum establishment with almost as much cart traffic as people traffic caught our attention.  Y. Ben House (835 Pacific Ave, San Francisco) would be the choice for a dim sum lunch.

Located across the street from a retirement community, Y. Ben House gets its share of mature customers.  The food, thankfully, is nothing like the unsalted fried chicken early bird special at Western Sizzlin.  Our dim sum selection included a nice dense fried tarot cake with crispy skin and sumptuously smooth interior,

Shrimp har-gow with a perfect al dente translucent wrapper (thick slice of ginger inside the dumpling with the shrimp paste made for a pleasant surprise),

(Clockwise from top left, next to shrimp har-gow), cold fried stuffed tarot whose gummy stuffing and day-old grease taste left much to be desired, savory fried pork stuffed glutinous rice cakes whose every bite exploded with flavor from the mushroom and pork stuffing, luxuriously sticky rice cake interior, and crisp deep fried exterior, shrimp stuffed eggplant fried to perfection with deep purple crispy skin on the bottom and crunchy batter on top, and a decent version of BBQ pork cheung fun which had cilantro to give it an interesting kick.

Also enjoyed was a bowl of cold silken tofu pudding (douhua) sweetened with a light ginger syrup (not pictured).

It’s not hard to see why Y. Ben House is so popular with the locals, solid renditions of dim sum classics are offered at prices cheaper than fast food (at the price of service being barely better than fast food).  Though the restaurant’s not setting any new food trends, it does the trusty old favorites well (unless you order from that one cart that has been circulating too long and your hot deep fried dish is now cold).

We spent the afternoon doing that which all tourists must do, Alcatraz Island, walking through the halls of the former maximum security prison while listening to the best audio-tour-on-tapes I’ve listened to in my short, though not shy in the tours-on-tape department, life.

For dinner, to complete a day in China via San Francisco, we headed back to the edge of Chinatown to Jai Yun (680 Clay St, San Francisco), a restaurant whose style is completely different than the “mass produce, sell for cheap” concept prevalant through the rest of Chinatown.  Jai Yun, open only for dinner reservations, offers prix-fixe Shanghainese (with heavy Nanjing influence since that’s where the non-English speaking chef hails from) family style banquet meals starting at $45/person.  You name the price when you call in for the reservation, and the ingredients for the meal are set accordingly.  The restaurant has been on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants list since 2003, so it was a must visit for this Shanghainese cuisine fan.

We arrived on time for our 7:00pm reservation on this drizzly Friday night to find an empty restaurant with a young Chinese man in his twenties at the cash register.  Were we in the right place?  Granted, there’s been some speculation that the restaurant has lost some of its hole-in-the-wall charm since relocating to its larger location in 2007, but a completely empty space on a Friday night?  We sat down and waited, with nervous anxiety building as the clock ticked in the silent room.  The young man poured us some hot tea into the restaurant’s curvy modern tumblers, visually pleasing but competely impractical as there were no handles on these cups and the thin porcelain provided no temperature shield from the steaming hot tea.  And so we waited.

At around 7:15pm, a group of four late-twenties/early-thirties walked in the restaurant.  I overheard one exclaim, “I’ve always heard good things about this place, glad we’re trying it tonight.”  I loosened up a little.  Hey, we weren’t the only customers anymore!  The young man who poured us our tea approached the group and upon realizing that it was their first time to the restaurant, explained Jai Yun’s prix-fixe concept.  The situation was confusing, it seemed that the other group did not have a reservation even though the restuarant’s website claims it is reservation-only.  The other group of diners expressed to the young Chinese man that they weren’t prepared for a $45/person dinner, and inquired if there was any way to pay for two people’s portions and split that amount between four people.  The young Chinese man re-emphasized the labor intensive process of serving a meal of 20-some small dishes, and stuck to his guns about the $45/person price.  The group thanked the young man and left.

My anxiety heightened again.  It’s almost 7:30pm and the restaurant was again completely silent.  At this point, I was even wishing for elevator music, or anything to make the situation less awkward.  No hint of any action coming from the kitchen.  Finally, at 7:30pm, I heard some arguing in Chinese between a man and a woman coming from the kitchen, followed by the distinct sizzle of something being dropped into an oiled hot wok.

Ten cold dishes, presented simultaneously, came first.

Tiny plates all arranged meticulously in an inverted cone shape was something to be seen after all that wait (actually only a 30-minute wait, but seemed like an eternity due to the silence).  I breathed a sigh of relief and tasted my way through Chef Nei’s talent.  From top left hand corner:

Crunchy marinated lotus root slices:

Marinated broccoli stems (reminded me of certain Korean banchan I’ve had in the DFW area):

Five spice braised beef topped with garlic (a bit sweet for my preference, but much better than the tough Yao Fuzi version.  However, I still prefer Dad’s):

Gong cai salad with sesame seeds (in olden days, a vegetable for the emperor) with a texture like fiberous dill pickles but a mild flavor:

Soft straw mushrooms with cilantro and red bell pepper:

Tiny five spiced firm tofu cubes with unidentified greens (tasted like the mildly sweet greens used in Shanghainese cai bao, or steamed vegetable bun):

Jelly fish salad with celery:

Smoked fish (not actually smoked, but the Shaoxing wine marinade with soy sauce, ginger, sugar, and star of anise gives it a smokey flavor):

Thinly sliced cucumbers in a sweet and slight sour marinade (notice the pattern of the skin, clearly knife work was involved for the presentation):

Five spice tofu:

Each portion was just big enough for the three of us to have two or three bites each, which is really all you need when there are so many dishes.

Then came the hot dishes, which came one or two dishes at a time.

Baby shrimp with tri-colored bell peppers and unexpectedly, chickpeas.  Tender baby shrimps from lakes are popular in Shanghainese cuisine as part of “white” cuisine, where pale white baby shrimp is served alongside tiny white fish.  These baby shrimp were tender, but didn’t have the same delicate, melt in your mouth, texture as the “white” lake shrimp I ate in Shanghai a couple of months later. 

Kao fu, wheat gluten, not marinated in sugar and soy sauce with wood ear and bamboo shoots like the Shanghai classic, but rather dense and stir fried with broccoli stems, mushrooms, red bell pepper, and edamame.  I’m used to kao fu having the texture of a spongy soft bread pudding, but this denser, crunchy-skinned version was a real treat.

Squid in a sweet and sour sauce.  This was my least favorite dish of the feast.  Sour (in a warm sauce) brings out fishy tastes in the squid.  Additionally, the entire dish was simply too salty.

Tofu skin with edamame and scallions.  An interesting display of how the texture of soy can vary depending on the form it takes, but the dish was again a bit too heavy with salt.

Mung bean skin (the brown translucent strips) with wind cured meat slices.  This was my favorite dish of the feast.  The mung bean skin absorbed the smokey flavor of the wind cured pork belly (essentially very lean bacon flavored with soy sauce) to make for a fascinating gelatinous strip with rich pork flavor.

Five spice tofu strips with celery and red bell pepper, a nice rendition of a classic Shanghai homestyle dish:

Kung pao chicken with a fiery sauce, stuck out like a sore thumb among the lighter (or sugar-laden) Shanghainese dishes.  A tasty dish, but felt out of place in this feast.

Fried eggplant with a sweet, sour, and slightly spicy sauce.  The caramelized crispy skin on this eggplant was incredible.  But this Cantonese style dish was again a departure from the Shanghainese set.

For the last dish, a return to east central coast Chinese cuisine, braised pork loin in a five spice sauce.  For those who have tried red cooked pork, this is a leaner version with a lighter sauce and a hint of cilantro. 

The banquet style dinners at Jai Yun clearly show Chef Nei as a talent in the kitchen, yet I still have mixed feelings about the experience.  I can’t help but replay the scenario of the empty restaurant that lost one of its two tables for the night due to a general view that Chinese food shouldn’t be as expensive as Western food.  It’s a bias that Chinese restaurant owners all over the country struggle with.  The all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets have ruined the ability for the general public to appreciate Chinese food beyond the quantity versus price evaluation criteria.  Even for those who look past the buffets, the hole-in-the-wall family Chinese restaurant is the expected authentic experience (I am also guilty of thinking along these lines).  Not this, not Jai Yun.

Based on the food alone, Jai Yun is not a poor value at $45/person.  If this were a tapas type restaurant, each small dish would have been a little over $7, a reasonable price.  The labor involved in creating these meticulously put together, instantly hot wok’ed dishes is no walk in the park.  However, the other part of my uneasiness about the Jai Yun experience shifts the responsibility to the restaurant.  For a $45/person meal, service should be better and dishes should be explained with greater detail as they are presented.  Customers shouldn’t be hearing the mom and pop argument in the kitchen as they would in a $8/plate hole-in-the-wall (it becomes uneasy background noise at this price point versus a charming, part of the authentic experience, “bonus” at a lower price point).  Wine list should be better than a few grocery store picks stashed behind the cash register.  Etc, etc. 

I can only ask myself one question, “If I lived in San Francisco, would I come back to this restuarant?”  The answer is an uneasy “no.”  As much as I want to support the rare talented Chinese chef who’s doing something other than a value-focused restaurant, Jai Yun is lacking something.  Maybe it’s the lack of explanation on the menu/from the waiter that really puts into perspective what a work of art this feast is, maybe it’s just the eerie feeling of being the only table at the restaurant on a Friday night.  As a foodie who loves learning through food, Jai Yun is a great first time experience.  Sadly, for this foodie it will probably be an one-time only experience.

Now that we had eaten our weight in Chinese food, we retired to our comfortable hotel for the evening and vouched to not touch soy sauce for at least a week.  Tomorrow we head for wine country.

Onto Day 2

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6 Responses to “Birthday Weekend in San Francisco – Day 1”

  1. foodczar 06/09/2008 at 9:15 am #

    What a marvelous post! I’d love to go back to San Francisco. You sure do get your exercise there!

    Agree with you totally about Jai Yun. The food looks wonderful, but for $45 a person without alcohol, your dining experience should be almost flawless. I think the fact that you were the only customers on a Friday evening speaks volumes, as does the fact that they could not find some way to accomodate the other patrons.

  2. FatCap 06/10/2008 at 7:19 am #

    Glad to have you back safely from your adventure across the pond & to have you posting again. I hope those grades turned out as desired, too.

    As you noted, SF’s Chinatown is a no longer a locals destination, as those restauranteurs who would run the front of the Chinese-restaurant house to a higher standard have discovered that there’s more appreciation, notoriety, and all around opportunity in less gritty climes. Also business travel, of late, doesn’t take me to SF 20+ times a year as it did just a year and a half ago, even then I detected a profound, already mature shift in tastes back to the Cal-French-Med backbone of the region’s cuisine, this time in an interpretation both more exacting and more expansive. SF Bay Area foodies are spoiled–they were among the first to be able to tap into the “regional Chinese” explorations that those of us who live elsewhere would pay a lot more than $45pp just to have worthwhile studies, especially when prepared by actual, honest-to-God native hand on work, available (I don’t live in some inflation-free fantasy world where one might expect anything in the same zip code of “almost flawless” for $7 a plate). Relatively authentic preparations of Chinese food has been available in that region for decades–it no longer holds as much of the foodie interest as it did in the 80’s and 90’s. One piece of evidence: the 2008 Zagat (no matter how you feel about them, there’s little denying that they reflect popular opinion) lists no–as in zero–Chinese restaurants in the top 20 (versus 16 described as serving French, Italian, or California cuisine). The mentioned SF Chronicle’s Top 100 list is dominated by the same.

    In reading your notes and looking at the pictures, I noted that (1) ingredients tended toward the inexpensive (where’s the abalone or orange beef that Chef Nei is famous for? at the next $ level maybe?), and (2) given that you guys were the only customers in the place, presentation sucked. I’m a believer that if you’re gonna do the “small and exquisite” dance, then don’t be sloppy with the footwork. Similar style meals I’ve eaten in Hong Kong and Shanghai were exquisitely plated, sometimes on ornate vessels, and presented with flourish by servers.

    All that said, there’s almost no level of cooking that can overcome service problems or the guest’s perception that the restaurant–as reflected by its decor, furnishings, china/flatware, beverage service or servers’ attitude–just doesn’t care. “Doesn’t care” doesn’t fly, not even at $10 a meal. How was the server’s English? Could language barrier have been the reason why he didn’t present dishes better?

    This place appears to be struggling, as corroborated by the Chronicle’s reducing it to 2-star status in Feb 2008.

    Again, glad to have you back.

  3. Margie 06/10/2008 at 6:34 pm #

    It all looks so beautiful! Too bad it wasn’t as perfect as it looks.

  4. donnaaries 06/18/2008 at 8:20 am #

    Jennifer 8 Lee of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles just included Jai Yun on her list of “Best Chinese Restaurants in The World” (outside of China). I’ve only been to 2 of the restaurants on her list, Hakkasan and Jai Yun, and just can’t imagine them on the same list. Maybe Ms. Lee is referencing pre-expansion Jai Yun?

    My copy of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is en route in shipping. More thoughts on that later.

  5. FatCap 06/18/2008 at 9:08 am #

    Mixed into that list are restaurants which are fusion kitchens and places more know for their “scene” than for the food. Based on my quick review of the list, it can hardly be considered anything resembling a gastronome’s critical assemblage. I will be curious to hear your thoughts on the book, ‘cuz I sho’ ain’t gonna drop no coin on it.

  6. Lee 01/09/2009 at 7:31 am #

    When you by the wharf, two places I would highly recommend are:

    1. Scoma’s Restaurant, Inc. Pier 47 on Al Scoma Way San Francisco, CA 94133 1.800. 644.5852 415.771.4383.

    One of my favorite entree’s there is the Abalone…expensive but worth every dollar.

    2. Buena Vista Cafe

    Fisherman’s Wharf – Ghirardelli Square

    The Buena Vista Café makes the list for its Irish Coffee, but it’s not your traditional Irish Pub. It’s a tourist draw for sure. For me, it’s still a favorite stop to take the chill off a cold waterfront day when touring around with visitors.

    The first U.S. glass of Irish Coffee was mixed at the Buena Vista in 1952, based on a recipe from Shannon Airport in Ireland. They still whip up a literal assembly line of consistent and delicious Irish Coffees. In 2006, they changed the recipe slightly by substituting Tullamore Dew whiskey for the Buena Vista blend they’d used for many years.

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