One of our family traditions since the kids were little has been a June visit to San Francisco. Even though Los Angeles Chinese food is a bit better than what they have in the Bay Area, I still look forward to trying the newest Chinese restaurants around San Francisco and revisiting our favorites. This year's June trip was particularly anticipated because it would be our first visits to the recently opened China Live and Mister Jiu's, both in San Francisco Chinatown. But I can't help but lead off with my chronicle of June's trip with the disaster that was our dinner at Martin Yan's M Y China Restaurant in Westfield San Francisco.
Don't get me wrong. Since it opened four years ago, M Y China has been one of our favorite Chinese restaurants anywhere, so much so that in our many visits here we pretty much exhausted their menu items. Some of their items have been superior, such as the Peking duck, the crab, the xiaolongbao, and the roast chicken. And while not every dish was high quality, we never had a bad one. Consequently we were looking forward to this meal, our last dinner of the trip. All of which made the poor meal we had especially disappointing. Granted, since we wanted to continue to work our way through the menu we ordered a couple of items we had never considered before, the Chairman Mao crunchy spicy chicken and the venison chow fun. Crunchy is one thing, but Chairman Mao was more like a jawbreaker, hard and dry. The venison chow fun was one of the worst chow fun dishes we ever had, having no flavor with zero wok hei. Being charitable perhaps we could say since we never considered these dishes before, we shouldn't have ordered them this time. But then there was the roast chicken, one of the few dishes we've ordered multiple times in the past. This time, the chicken skin was like paper and the chicken was as dry as sawdust. Don't know what happened this time. We asked the server if there had been a change in the kitchen, but she said there hadn't been. But in any event, a restaurant of this quality and price level should consistently operate at a high level, and there was no excuse for this meal.
Meanwhile, the good news is that dining may be back in San Francisco Chinatown. Things have been so discouraging in Chinatown in recent years such that we almost never eat dinner in San Francisco Chinatown anymore, just breakfast and lunch. But things are on the upswing with the opening of China Live and Mister Jiu's. China Live occupies the space that was once home to banquet restaurants Ocean City (whose owners still live in infamy for stiffing their employees by folding their tent and carting everything out of the restaurant sometime one night between midnight and 6 am) and Gold Mountain, but which has been empty for years. China Live is a multi-million dollar project, intended to be the Chinese equivalent of Eataly in Manhattan, the large Italian market and restaurant complex. Only the first floor of China Live is currently open, and its opening several weeks ago was so late compared to its original schedule that many people had assumed it would never open. We had the Peking duck sesame pouches, the wok fried filet mignon, the crab egg rolls and (pictured below) the Marco Polo noodles. The food was expensive and honestly not particularly good. The contiguous but separate open kitchens for Peking duck, dumplings, and wok cooked items are an interesting feature. And the restaurant was bustling both the night we ate there, a couple of nights later when we checked out the market area, and at lunchtime on our last day there, which is a very encouraging sign and which would be a shot in the arm for San Francisco Chinatown.
The highlight of the trip was our dinner at Mister Jiu's. I had made a reservation for dinner at Mr. Jiu in Chinatown a full month in advance, as the restaurant is very popular. It’s the creation of a well known Bay Area chef named Brandon Jew, who took three years preparing the space that used to house Four Seas Restaurant upstairs on Grant Ave., but redesigning the space so that the entrance to the restaurant is on ground level at the back on Waverly Place, which sits up the hill from Grant Ave. The restaurant opened a year ago, and initially they were doing five course banquet menus for almost $100 per person. However that concept wasn’t well received and they went a la carte late last year. One theme of the restaurant is local sourcing, so in line with this we had the Dutch Crunch baked bbq pork bun, (below) patterned after San Francisco's unique Dutch Crunch bread. It was fairly good, although not nearly as good as the various crispy bbq pork buns at Bay Area Chinese restaurants such as Dragon Beaux, Hong Kong Lounge 1 and 2, Koi Palace and Lai Hong Lounge. At $13 for three small bao, it also was about twice as expensive. The crab and caviar cheung fun was excellent, and was definitely worth the $17 charge for the two rice rolls. The McFarlane Springs salt baked trout from Central California was excellent, having the look, taste and texture of salmon, which made it worth the $48 tab. Indeed it was a bargain compared to the $60 you'd pay for a live whole fish at a Chinese seafood restaurant. Truly a meal that any foodie would enjoy.
Other trip highlights included the tomato cilantro Tibetan bison momo at Bini's Kitchen on Market Street in the Financial District, the variety of rice noodle rolls and other excellent Hong Kong style dishes at Cooking Papa in Foster City, the crunchy pork buns, fish cheung fun and coffee ribs at Lai Hong Lounge in Chinatown, the hotpot (below) at Little Sheep at their Union Square location, the pizza-like bacon and tomato bun at Fancy Wheat Field on Stockton St., and even the $1.25 crispy baked bbq pork buns at iCafe Chinatown on Waverly Pl. But in the background, my memory of this trip is still haunted by the images of Martin Yan in a little room somewhere being held against his will.