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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.

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