Eight Tables--Nine Flavors

Restaurateur George Chen has been around quite a few blocks. His latest opus is Eight Tables, a small, sparse elegant space on the second level above his new food emporium—dubbed by some the "Chinese Eataly"—China Live.

Chen got his start cooking under friend and mentor Ceclia Chiang at her famed Mandarin Restaurant in Ghirardelli Square. Chen opened his first restaurant, the iconic pan-Asian Betelnut on Union Street in San Francisco in 1995 – and it was a favorite of ours for years, where we could sample eclectic and delicious foods from around Asia. He went on to open Shanghai 1930, where we always found the best Shanghai soup dumplings.

In 2001 he opened the high end dining spot Qi at the then-new International Terminal at SFO. It was a financial disaster, wiped him out, and he and his wife spent 2003 – 2016 in the restaurant business in Shanghai. Now he’s back, with the 30,000 square foot China Live, and the jewel box Eight Tables, all supposedly backed by rich Asian investors.

The first entrance to Eight Tables is somewhat off-putting: a locked iron gate blocks the entrance to seedy 

Andrew Fuentes explains that

spicy, salty, sweet, sour, bitter, numbing, nutty, sharp, and smoky. Included are single bites of date, beef tendon, a bit of chicken rolled around a salted egg, bitter melon, briny clam, smoked fish and more. An interesting and playful commencement.

The delightful Four Seas Dumpling is one four-lobed flower-petal dumpling containing Russian golden Osetra caviar, uni, trout roe and crème fraiche topped with minced pickled apple. We’re advised to cut it apart, and eat each piece separately – turning one course into four. All elements are most delicious, but the uni the standout for me.

By this point it’s time to change wines to an off-dry Gewurtztraminer by famed Alsatian vintner Zind Humbrecht. We glance around to pay a bit more attention to the serene and subdued surroundings with soft jazz playing in the background. The well-separated space features four round booths that can seat up to eight, four four-tops, and one long oval table. If you count the Chef’s table in the kitchen that’s really a ninth table, but there are truly only eight in the elegant restaurant space.  All the waiters wear khaki-colored three-piece suits which echo the wood walls and leather banquettes, and the somm and the GM stand out in their dark pinstripes.

The Barbeque ‘Shao Kao’ course consists of a bite of Iberico char siu pork on fried shiso leaf, a square of pork belly, and Kaluga caviar on shatteringly crisp duck skin.

The Gewurz pairs well with the Gulf Prawn and consommé with pumpkin vermicelli, and more than well with the Black cod in Banana leaf that follows. Succulent translucent flesh on a lotus-root base, with bamboo heart and ginger shreds and baby eggplant, steamed and then splashed with scallion oil at the last minute. A spectacular dish, and what will turn out to be one of my favorites of the evening.

For the heartier courses to come, the somm recommends a Flowers pinot noir for the one of us who loves that grape, and a Faust Cabernet for me. Both tasty, and should be for the per-glass price. This is a restaurant for an occasion or a splurge, certainly not one to count the pennies.

We learned Velvet Chicken years ago from Barbara Tropp’s opus when she had China Moon on Bush Street, but have never had it like this with shaved black truffles, matsutake mushrooms and a soya veal jus creating a symphony of flavors.

A square of red ‘Dongpo’ pork belly on a swoosh of rich sauce gets baby bok choy and a tiny tea-smoked quail egg alongside, and boy what a combination of richness. And that richness is intensified by the following course of a foie gras potsticker paired with a black sesame-peanut mochi, which GM Fuentes claims is his favorite course on the menu.

We’re eased down with a scoop of fermented rice sorbet, tasting a bit like sake, topped with Goji berry vinegar and berries. And finally, Chinese sea grass shards, a passion fruit mousse and mesquite bubbles – yes just bubbles of foamed mesquite smoke – how it’s created is anyone’s guess.

We’re given a quick tour of the gleaming high-tech kitchen as it’s winding down for the night, say hello to the cheerful brigade, and briefly meet Chef de Cuisine Chi-Feng Lin, who hails from Taiwan.

The tasting menu, wines, service, tax and SF health charge add up to just over $750 for two people. Quite pricey, but a very special experience.


Colorado Mining Towns

The Colorado Silver Rush followed the ’49 Gold Rush in California almost 30 years later.  Silverton, nestled at a 9,300 foot elevation in a valley surrounded by soaring peaks of the San Juan Mountains, experienced the mining boom from the late 1870’s through the early 1890’s.

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Puerto Vallarta Getaway

Oh, those sunsets. Fiery orange, salmon, burnt gold, fading to purple and then gone—set against he magnificent enveloping sweep of the Bahia de Banderias and the multi-hued blues of the Pacific. A winter getaway to Puerto Vallarta—El Paraiso del Pacifico—where we haven't been in a dozen years. Troy came first as a child with her family in 1960 when it was still a small fishing village. The simple Casas de Carmencita terracing up the hill behind the Parroquia de Nuestra Senora was the place her family stayed. There were a few taquerias and loncherias in the centro.  La Palapa, on the Playa de los Muertos a hike south, had opened in 1959—a  palm-roofed restaurant on the beach, with sand floor and pig-skin equipales chairs. They went south of the river for the day and swam, sunned and ate.

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La Cité du Vin

Along the Garonne River, in a rapidly-gentrifying former industrial area of Bordeaux sits the ultra-modern twisting golden cage-like structure that is known as La Cité du Vin. Part museum, part wine-shop, part interactive experience, part restaurant, this stunning edifice provides lots to do for a half-day or more for those interested the wines of the Bordeaux region.

Designing architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières state that the building is meant to evoke “wine’s soul and liquid nature, gnarled vine stock, wine swirling in a glass and eddies on the Garonne.”

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St Emilion

From Perigord we drive west a couple of hours to the wine region and town of St Emilion, there to do some winery exploring, wine tasting, and luxurious living in the elegant Relais & Chateau—Hostellerie de Plaisance. We arrive at the lovely stone hotel, once a convent, and back our rental black mini into the only empty of three spots in front, next to a black McLaren P1 and a black Ferrari 812 – intimidating company! We’re shown to our terrace suite overlooking the hotel’s lower gardens and the golden stone town tumbling down the hillside. Plaisance is owned by the Perse family, which also owns nearby Premier Grand Cru Chateau Pavie—which dates to Roman times, and takes its name from ancient orchards of peaches “pavies” which stood on the location. The Perse family also own Chateau Monbousqet and Chateau Pavie-Decesse, and they are clearly committed to quality and luxury. We meet Madame Chantal Perse over the course of our stay, and she is both elegant and welcoming.

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Great Fosters

One night overnight in or near London, on the way to the continent can be challenging to do both easily and nicely. Airport hotel is easy, but hardly charming. A nice hotel and good dinner is to be had in London, with the hassle of a cab and traffic, or the express train to a cab to a hotel. What to do?

Twenty minutes from Heathrow sits an oasis of serene greenery and historic architecture called Great Fosters—a lovely country house hotel set in a 50 acre parkland, with fantastic and varied gardens, and a terrific restaurant.

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Royal Scotsman

We’ve enjoyed multi-night train journeys in historic train cars on several occasions in the past, including the Venice-Simplon Orient Express from Venice to Paris, and the Eastern and Oriental in Southeast Asia. A run around the Scottish Highlands on the Royal Scotsman, now owned by the Belmond group, has been on Troy’s bucket list for some while, so it was time for another “cruising by rail” journey.

Belmond’s Classic journey is a 4 night/5 day loop around Scotland, beginning in Edinburgh travelling through the highlands, past its capital Inverness, and reaching Kyle of Lochalsh—which translates to "strait of the foaming loch" and which is the crossing to the Isle of Skye.

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Sonoran Desert

Tucson sits at 2600 feet in the high Sonoran dessert, surrounded by mountains on four sides--the conical peaks and sharp ridges of the Tucson mountains to the west, the long, craggy ridge of the Santa Catalina mountains to the north, where mount Lemmon peaks at over 9,000 feet, the Rincons to the east, which contains the eastern portion of Saguaro National Park, and further to the south, around forty miles, the Santa Rita's. The vistas are stunning in all directions, and one can understand why this place was settled in the opening of the west.

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