Family Dinner with Chef Nei
923 Pacific Ave. at Powell, San Francisco [[Update 11/26/07: New location at 680 Clay St. at Kearny]]
Chinatown/Nob Hill neighborhood
Chef's tasting dinners daily with primary seating at 7 p.m.
Reservations required. Cash only.
Growing up Chinese, I’ve been to my share of Chinese banquets, where dishes and dishes of food come one after another until you actually hear people saying: “please, enough.” But I’ve never heard of a Chinese tasting menu, where diners give up control of selecting the menu to the chef. (My mom would never leave it to the chef; she would think the chef would give us whatever dishes he couldn’t move that day.)
So when fellow food blogger Foodhoe suggested Jai Yun and its multi-course chef’s tasting menu, I was intrigued.
I’d never heard of Jai Yun, so I did some research on the Web and found raving reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle and among some food bloggers—one even calling the restaurant’s chef and owner Nei Chiaji the Chinese version of Thomas Keller. Now that’s a pretty high standard to live up to and it did more than raise my expectations of dinner at Jai Yun.
Our initial attempt to go to Jai Yun was foiled when the restaurant closed for a few days near the end of summer. So Foodhoe made a reservation for the following Thursday, which is surprising because all information on this restaurant says they’re closed on that day. But with confirmation in hand, Foodhoe and I walked the hills of San Francisco’s Chinatown to the door of Jai Yun.
NOTE: Two important things about planning to eat at Jai Yun. 1) Reservations are required and it seems like there’s only one seating, at 7 p.m. If you call later in the day, you’re more likely to reach the chef’s son, who speaks a little more English than his wife. 2) Bring cash, despite the fact that the fixed price for the dinner can go as high as $100 per person. This really is a family-run restaurant.
The outside of the restaurant looks like any tiny Chinese restaurant you’ll find in Chinatown, except it’s plastered with several Zagat logos. You walk in to what some might consider a dive but what I think is a real mom-and-pop restaurant with casual décor and a lot of Christmas lights. Foodhoe and I were the first to arrive so we picked a table near the window. We were given menus that didn’t list the food items (because that’s decided by the chef) but instead gave us information about the chef’s approach to dinner (he selects fresh and seasonal ingredients from that day’s market) and his upbringing (he’s originally from Nanjing, which is the ancient capital of China not too far from Shanghai). Behind me were placards with Chinese characters and English translations describing various dishes.
After being left alone for quite some time, the hostess (my guess is the chef’s wife) came back to get our decision about our dinner level. The minimum for dinner is $45 per person but Foodhoe and I decided to kick it up a notch and go for $55. (More adventurous people can go for even higher menus in the $75-100 range.) Then we sat back and waited for the feast to begin.A young man dressed in a well-worn T-shirt (my guess is the chef’s son) started us with the cold plates. He brought out mini plates with food neatly piled into a tiny molehill and briefly announced each dish to us. There were too many plates to photograph so here’s a couple of snapshots of some of the cold dishes. A total of nine plates arrived and they included (in order of appearance): 1) Jellyfish salad, 2) thinly sliced Lotus Root Salad, 3) Green Radish Salad, 4) thinly sliced Preserved Beef, 5) Pickled Cabbage, 6) Mixed Mushrooms with Shark Fin, 7) Dried Tofu slices, 8) Cucumber Salad and 9) Cilantro Salad.
A clear distinction of all the dishes is the fantastic knife skills of Chef Nei. The cucumber were paper-thin and you could almost thread a needle with the jellyfish (OK, maybe not, but they were the thinnest jellyfish slices I’ve ever seen.) There were so much precision in each cut that many of the pieces looked identical.
The taste was a mix bag of things familiar and things not: the jellyfish was bland, the lotus root was nicely pickled, so were the radish, which had a nice crunch with an underlining sesame oil flavor. The sweet-and-sour vinaigrette was perfect in the pickled cabbage but was virtually nonexistent in the cucumber. The tofu tasted like every other vegetarian dish I’ve had at a Chinese restaurant (and I don’t like forced vegetarian dishes at Chinese restaurants) but the thinly sliced preserved beef had an interesting spicy flavor.
After Foodhoe and I dissected each of the tiny dishes (which really could have come in one big appetizer platter) then came the warm dishes. I’ll discuss each as they arrived at our table.
Foo Yung Abalone, one of Chef Nei’s signature dish. It’s very thinly sliced abalone moistened by fluffy fried egg whites. The warmth of the egg whites blended perfectly with the tender flesh of the abalone. I could see why many people like this dish. My only thing was that, visually, this dish looked like barf. It was just a big white blob. But a tasty blob nonetheless.
Gluten with fresh bamboo shoots, green bellpepper, carrots and mushrooms. I don’t think I ever ate gluten, until I took one bite of the squishy product and realized this is the thing they throw in all those Chinese vegetarian dishes. Based on my comment above, you can guess that I wasn’t thrilled by this dish.
Ginkgo Nuts and Shrimp. This stir-fry dish was filling, but the ginkgo nuts were more like garbanzo beans instead of the herbal-tasting ginkgo nuts I’m familiar with. (My mom often put ginkgo nuts in her clear-broth soups.) The overall dish also had the familiar cornstarch glaze found in most Chinese stir-fries, and this was a flavor base that would come back often in upcoming dishes.
Soybean Tofu Chop Suey. I don’t think Chef Nei would admit to calling this a chop suey—the Americanized version of Chinese stir-fry—but it really felt like it was from the same family. This was just a mix of soybeans (the edamame) and thin tofu strips with a mix of other vegetables and oyster sauce. I was starting to feel like we were eating at a vegetarian restaurant.
Green peas, corn and fish. This fish dish was unusual in that the white fish was chopped into tiny bits the size of the peas. But that didn’t necessarily change the taste. It was like any other stir-fry plate you might find at other fine Chinese restaurants. It didn’t tickle my taste buds with new flavors.
Special Orange Beef. This is the basic deep-fried beef with orange sauce. Most Chinese restaurants would make this technique using pork ribs, but Chef Nei uses thinly sliced beef. The texture was interesting and the slight orange sauce with bits of orange peel didn’t overwhelm the plate. It also had a slightly spicy flavor representing the chef’s Northern-style cooking.
Celery with Five Spices and Dried Tofu. Just when I thought we were done with the vegetarian dish, we get another tofu selection. This was brightened by the crunch of tiny young baby celery pieces. I wasn’t a fan of the pressed tofu that were julienned to match the celery and didn’t get any five-spice flavoring.
Braised Pork Leg. In case you weren’t keeping count, this is course No. 17. And it was finally at this point that my mouth exploded with flavor. And why wouldn’t it when you’re fed slow-cooked meat? This dish is actually based on one of my favorite specialty dishes at Cantonese restaurants. At some restaurants, tender duck pieces are slow cooked and the meat encases a mix of herbs and other vegetarian ingredients created into a mound. This dish is often called Duck with Eight Treasures and you have to order it a day in advance at most restaurants because of the slow cooking and preparation required. At Jai Yun, the chef used a pork leg and creates the same tender meat with brown sauce like the duck dish I’m familiar with but with added layers of flavors such as five spice and hoisin.
Hubei Winter Melon. Initially I thought Chef Nei didn’t really have a clear theme to his tasting menu, and then I realize that he has basically set the course based on spiciness. As the meal went on, the dishes got spicier. Prime example is this winter melon dish. I’m more familiar with eating winter melon as a soup, so I was surprised to find it as a hidden treasure. Where was it hidden? In a big mound of spicy pork ragu that was delicious and hot, contrasting nicely with the cool, tender winter melon meat in the center.
Kung Pao Chicken. I was disappointed to hear that our final dish, course No. 19, was Kung Pao Chicken. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kung Pao Chicken, but there’s been some debate about how authentic this dish is to Chinese cuisine. Maybe it is, but I thought it wasn’t as innovative a dish to serve for a tasting dinner. It was definitely the most spicy of all the dishes served that night and this was when I wished we had a bowl of steamed rice.
NOTE: Rice isn’t served in this tasting menu because the chef doesn’t want you to get full before you’ve eaten all the dishes. I guess you could request rice at the end, but by then you’ll probably be too full.
After ending our tasting menu on such a spicy note, Foodhoe and I agreed that it would have been nice if we were given some kind of sweet dessert. We didn’t get anything. So we just gulped our water and paid the bill, which came out to be about $70 for each of us after we added tax and tip to the $55 base we selected.
On this Thursday night, there were only one other table dining with us. But it was a table of 10 and despite them being the only other table, the dynamics of the room made their laughter and chatter much louder than expected. I can’t imagine what it would be like if it was a packed house.
So let’s get one thing clear from the get-go: Chef Nei is no Thomas Keller. While Nei has wonderful knife skills, he lacks the vision and innovative approach to cooking that Keller offers in his many restaurants. (Not to mention the difference in service.) I did enjoy my meal, mostly because I like the idea of guessing what dish would come next and discussing each plate with a fellow food lover. But I wouldn’t call Jai Yun’s tasting menu a true tasting menu. It’s more like going to Chef Nei’s family home and being treated to his everyday dishes instead of special banquet-type creations.
I’m also a bit torn about whether it was worth paying $55 for 19 tiny courses when I probably could have spent the same amount for five to seven hearty servings at another fine Chinese restaurant. I also question how much thought Chef Nei really puts into his entrees because many of them seem very generic and dishes such as the abalone and slow-cooked pork leg seems to appear in every review of Jai Yun, making me wonder if he’s serving pretty much the same menu but making people think he thought up that menu that day? I mean, really, he’s in Chinatown where he easily could have tempted us with fresh seafood such as calamari or frog legs or even squab and poussin. Instead we got mostly generic Chinese stir-fries.
I didn’t leave Jai Yun disappointed, because I love eating adventures and love tasting menus. I just didn’t leave terribly impressed.
Single guy rating: 3 stars (it's like an average Iron Chef tasting)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
For Foodhoe’s take on the dinner, check out her review and great photos (much better than mines).
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Family Dinner with Chef Nei