Dining Out: Jai Yun (San Francisco) Normal view Printer-friendly
First off, I've been working on this article for nearly five years. The main difficulty in writing this review is just how many courses the dinners involved and how much I wanted to tell people about how great the food is but failing to find the words. I kept putting it off. Once in a while, I'd pick up the article and work on it a little, only to put it away again. Then we went back and dined there again, and I wanted to include my new thoughts and excitement in the review, but that caused it to become an even more daunting task. After our last visit several months ago (where we witnessed an astonishing display of knife skills after an exceptional meal), I vowed that I'd finish the article because I wanted as many people as I could reach to know about this restaurant. Surely, if there's a restaurant that I've dined at and loved, this is the one that needs as much publicity as possible. Even so, I still found the task beyond my abilities, but I decided not to delay any longer and just publish this review. It's not some of my better writing (especially since some sections were written years ago), but hopefully it'll convey how amazing Jai Yun is and how worthy of a visit it is. Due to the number of pictures, the review takes up a lot of vertical space, so I've included the following links to help navigate the article a little easier.
My Jai Yun tale goes back nearly five years when I first heard about this restaurant from FoodBuzz co-founder Doug Collister who recommended it over dinner in early 2008. As I recall, it wasn't a long recommendation but very simple and intriguing: "The best Chinese restaurant I've eaten at is this place in San Francisco Chinatown where reservations are required and there is no menu - just a piece of paper with some numbers on it. You point at a number that you are willing to pay and they bring you some of the best food you've ever tasted." This was too intriguing to not try, so I made a reservation and we drove up to the City.
We arrived at the restaurant a bit early after an afternoon of sightseeing and found it locked up tight. It would remain gated up until about 15 minutes before our designated dinner time. On our most recent visit, my friend Jeff commented that he used to walk past this restaurant on his way home from work - literally hundreds of times - and never realized that there was anything special there. Given how the exterior looks, there's no surprise there. It looks like any of a hundred restaurants in any run down section of Chinatown in any of a dozen major cities.
Once we entered, we were seated pretty quickly and presented with this piece of paper. This photo was taken in 2008 so the prices are probably a bit different now. With a little help from the English speaking but unhelpful (perhaps due to shyness) waiter, I understood that $45 per person was the lowest possible price, but with only two people, $55 was the lowest available, but that would severely limit the ingredients the chef would be able to use on our meal. He was also surprised that we weren't asked to select a price point when we made our reservation over the phone. (In subsequent visits, I've attempted to select a price while making reservations, but have never managed to get it just right due to the language barrier and general difficulties in communicating over the phone.) I asked what we would get if we paid more since this was our first time. The waiter shrugged and said he really didn't know what chef would prepare, but "maybe best if you choose middle". So, I agreed to $80.
Tina glared at me - $160 plus tax and tip for Chinese food in a restaurant where the interior looks like it would serve take-out food? $80 per person to eat on paper placemats? (This was 2008 when I had just started, a few months before, to be paid a living wage [which was less than half the salary I had in 2005] and had worked without a salary for well over a year at Fanpop. Money was tight, and I had chosen to take her to this restaurant when there were several dozen a block away that would cost a fifth as much.) I shrugged and tried to assure her it would be good while feeling my doubts grow.
Cold Dishes (10 dishes)
Soon, a collection of cold dishes arrived at our table and we started to sample the food. After tentatively tasting a few of the dishes, we knew these appetizers weren't store bought or even made by your typical Chinese restaurant cook. The ingredients were bright and clear. Strong flavors were strong; subtle ones were subtle. Marinated or pickled elements were just right - neither over or under seasoned. (On our latest visit, we learned that the pickling occurs in a very specific time frame prior to the meal so it is just right.)
As we tasted each cold dish, we were more and more delighted. Tina's excitement grew with each dish and, at one point, stated that there were some flavors she hadn't tasted since leaving China fifteen years before. I was too busy tasting everything to come up with something to say.
There were a lot of dishes, and I'm not sure how to comment on each one except to keep repeating that it was excellent and amazing, so just scroll through them and I'll make comments and pick up the narrative after a few more dishes.
This is one example where the dish is deceptively simple. We've had cucumber salad in a variety of Chinese restaurants and, more often than not, it's not as good as it should be for such a seemingly simple dish. The amount of seasoning - sugar, sesame oil, vinegar, and soy sauce - should be just right as well as the amount of time the cucumber slices are salted (for optimal texture). This salad was perfect - thin crunchy slices, not too sweet, not too salty, and not too bland.
Many of the dishes served at Jai Yun are familiar to me, but there are some which weren't. In addition, there were some ingredients (like the fresh abalone) that I don't often get to eat. Gong cai is a Chinese vegetable also known as tribute vegetable or, probably most commonly, the mountain jelly vegetable. It has a mild vegetal flavor and is extremely crunchy (without being hard). It's actually difficult to explain because it's both really crunchy and soft at the same time.
This is another example of an uncommon Chinese vegetable. Wosun is most often known as celtuse but is also known as Chinese lettuce or Chinese asparagus or Chinese stem lettuce. This vegetable tasted like a subtle celery.
After sampling all of the cold dishes, we attempted to choose which of them were our favorites. We kept going from dish to dish, tasting each one again and again unable to narrow down which were the better ones because they were all delicious. Some we enjoyed more for the flavor, some for the texture, and some for the novelty. Before all the dishes were consumed, Tina said to me that we should start planning for a return visit. "We have to come back!" Soon after, we finished off the last little bit of the cold dishes and the plates were cleared.
Hot Dishes (11 dishes)
After the ten cold dishes, a series of hot courses (presented one by one) began. Each one was delicious but not overly complex allowing the ingredients to shine. For example, the first dish was a simple one of egg whites and fresh abalone (an ingredient I had never had before and have not had since except at Jai Yun - all the other abalone I've had has been previously dried or from a can). The abalone's texture was incredibly tender with just the slightest amount of chew. Because they were fresh, the flavor was delicate which meant the pairing with the egg whites worked particularly well.
One of the reasons why over the last several years I never got up enough motivation to write about Jai Yun was that I didn't feel like I had the words to explain each dish properly and really do the experience justice. Erin (who dined with us on our latest outing to Jai Yun and whom I've previously mentioned in my Uchi review) encouraged me to write the review of my Jai Yun experiences simply because the restaurant was so wonderful that it deserved more exposure and as many people as possible should be encouraged to dine there as possible. I wholeheartedly agreed and decided that I had to set aside my desire to be a completionist and comment on everything and allow the pictures and my enthusiasm to speak for the food. So, here are some more pictures (I'll have less and less to say as we go until I start storytelling again further down).
This was a perfect example of a dish that is lightly flavored which could, if it had been prepared elsewhere by less deft hands, have been considered bland. Here, the saucing was just right to provide just enough savoriness to enhance the natural sweetness of the tender, flaking pieces of fish (also supported by the corn kernels and sweet peas).
One of the loofa pieces I had was bitter, but the others were excellent.
This beef, thinly sliced and fried so it "puffed" up was crispy and airy with wonderful flavor. On our next visit, this dish would be underwhelming to me, but on our third visit, it was phenomenal.
If Jai Yun has a signature dish, this would be it. Prior to this, I had never had anything like it. It had a crispy exterior with a soft, tender interior. The sweet shell really complimented the eggplant flavor making this dish into something much more than you would expect.
Chef Nei Chia Ji photographed on July 17, 2008.
We spoke to the chef (in Mandarin Chinese) after the meal and learned that with larger groups he's able to prepare courses that he normally wouldn't be able to for couples. He porovided some examples like whole fish or whole duck. We decided that not only were we coming back, but we had to come back in a group.
2nd visit (larger group: 8 people)
In February 2009, before leaving the Bay Area to move to Austin, we arranged for a group of twelve to dine at Jai Yun. Unfortunately, as the date drew closer, a two couples who were planning on attending were unable to make it, so we ended up with a table for eight. Many of the dishes were similar to our first visit, but I did not mind at all. There were a few dishes where I could nitpick a little, but everything else came out excellent.
Cold dishes (15 dishes)
About half the dishes served are cold dishes or appetizers. It's easy to dismiss these dishes, but each one is made specifically for that evening's service. There isn't a giant vat of each cold dish sitting in cold storage where some amount is ladled out each evening for a week. The work to make each dish is repeated over and over because each of these plates need to be served within a certain time frame for optimal texture, taste, and experience. Allowing the dish to sit an extra day could result in a soggy texture instead of just the right amount of crispness. The strength of the flavors and the balance can also be thrown off if not served when the dish is ready. Of course, these cold dishes are made before service, but many are made just a few hours before and each one is served during the window in which the dish is at its best. To be able to prepare and serve a dozen cold dishes at this caliber is a real achievement.
This dish was delightfully garlicky.
Hot Dishes (14 dishes)
I felt like the ginko nuts were a bit intense for this dish and was not a fan of the pairing. The shrimp was perfectly cooked and extremely tender. What's interesting is that on our next visit, I would enjoy this dish tremendously.
This was probably my favorite dish on this visit. The squid was cooked just right for perfect texture (no rubberiness) and wonderfully flavored.
The loofa that I ate had a couple pieces where the skin wasn't as tender as they could have been. It wasn't fibrous or chewy, but it was just a tad tougher than ideal. Again, I'm really nitpicking... the loofa had no bitterness indicative of old loofa or loofa of poor quality.
Ti pong is a long cooked skin-on, bone-in pork shoulder cooked in soy sauce and spices until the meat falls apart, the fat is rendered to succulence, and the skin is almost soft and gooey. The shoulder we got was well prepared, but the sauce tasted a tad bitter, like it was overcooked when reduced. I hadn't had this dish in about ten years, so I was glad to have been served it. However, I didn't feel it was as well prepared as some I've had before. On our next visit, this dish would be executed flawlessly and uniformly recognized as one of the great dishes of the evening.
These mushrooms had great texture - light and airy with a crisp flavorful shell.
I felt that this time around, the beef flavor just wasn't strong enough as I found the citrus to be dominating. I really worked hard to take notes on this visit and be critical, but I still couldn't believe how great almost all the dishes were.
Our most recent visit to Jai Yun was encouraged by my friend Erin. We were at dinner one evening and discovered that we would both be in the San Francisco Bay Area at the same time. She said, "You know that Chinese restaurant you told me about that doesn't have a menu and just serves whatever the chef feels like making? I want that. Make it happen." I quickly agreed and started asking around to see who would be able to commit to a multi-hour $100 per person dinner and together we managed to assemble a group of sixteen. As with many large groups, a couple had to cancel, so we ended up with a table for fourteen. I dare say that no one at this meal would ever forget their experience. The food was phenomenal (no critism - everything was well prepared with a few dishes being examples of the best version of those dishes I had ever tasted), the company and conversation was excellent, the question and answer period with the chef after dinner was enlightening, and the surprise demonstration of Chef's knife skills (he uses someone's back as a cutting board!) took the dinner over the top. I had no way to describe this meal except as an epic dinner.
Here's the Chef (photographed after our meal on September 7, 2012) talking passionately about the cuisine he just prepared for us.
The restaurant's not much to look at, but, with food like this, it's totally forgivable.
Cold Dishes (16 dishes)
Of the three meals I've had at Jai Yun, this latest one was probably the best one with every dish as good as I remembered or better. As good as I thought Chef Nei Chia Ji was in 2008, he's clearly even more consistent and better now.
Hot Dishes (16 dishes)
The first time I had this dish, I felt that the ginko nuts were a bit overpowering. Either my taste buds had changed over time (quite possible as I've documented many more meals since my previous visit to Jai Yun) or Chef has found a way to perfect this dish for I had nothing but positive feelings while eating this. I don't know how to emphasize how perfectly the shrimp were cooked... I feel like saying it was perfectly cooked doesn't do it justice. Or rather, all the other shrimp that I had eaten and described as "perfectly cooked" from other places were not quite as perfect as I thought.
This dish was again executed with just the right frying time to produce the most incredible textures. It's actually quite amazing that all the fried foods prepared at Jai Yun do not seem greasy - in fact, the idea that they might be oily doesn't even cross the mind. The timing and the preparation of the fried foods like this one is such that the finished product is light, airy, and crispy with a tender interior. This dish was so good that my friend Nat specifically asked Chef about how it was prepared after dinner.
The orange peel beef was just right this time - even better than the first time I had it and well-balanced in flavor (unlike how I remembered it from my second visit). I believe Nat said it was "simply amazing".
This duck was amazing. Much of the fat had been rendered off, so it didn't taste as fatty as duck often is. The texture was excellent - it pulled apart easily with just a couple of forks and was juicy and flavorful. The most interesting part was that it was braised in a liquid that gave it the dark brown color and provided an interesting herbal flavor that I have trouble explaining since it's the first time I've had something like that. I can only guess what produced the flavors, but it reminded me of orange peel, root beer (sassafras in particular), and bitters which came together to form an odd but addictive combination. I kept going back for more and more of that duck just to taste the seasonings again and marvel at the combination. My guess is that those flavors aren't for everyone, but I found them incredible.
The ti pong on this visit was the best I've ever had. The meat was tender and juicy with an excellent amount of gelatin and fat adding to the flavor and mouthfeel. The skin was also incredibly delicious. The sauce was flavorful - both sweet and salty. Some other people in our party were also familiar with this dish and everyone agreed that it was the best ti pong they had ever had.
This is probably my favorite part of the meal: to be able to watch the reactions of those eating this dish for the first time and hearing their exclamations of "amazing" and looks of surprise and delight.
After our dinner, we got an extra special treat that elevated the meal from a great memorable experience to an epic dinner. Chef came out, and through the aid of Tina's untrained but more than adequate translation skills, provided a question and answer session for our table. We asked questions ranging from which regions these dishes came from (he named a dozen different ones before I lost track and explained that the meal was a geographic trek from one end of China to the other and back) to how he goes about selecting the ingredients (due to his language limitations he's forced to buy locally from the vendors in Chinatown and by sight at the farmer's market). Chef then explained that the meal we ate (and the ones he usually prepares for new guests) are all country style / homestyle dishes but his real talent is in more "technical" food preparations. One example he gave was the ability to debone a duck and serve it whole without making incisions (the bones are broken and removed through the beak)! Personally, I was beginning to doubt that he was able to do what he was claiming (believing him to be embellishing and inflating his abilities). Then, he casually said his knife skills were so good that he could prep ingredients using someone's back as a cutting board. Clearly, he was no longer being serious. As soon as Tina translated that, our friend Erin (whom we first met and I wrote about years ago dining at Uchi) shot her hand up and said, "Me! I'll do it!"
In my memory, Chef had a peculiar look in his eyes that I took to mean, "Uh oh, what have I gotten myself into." But, as Erin insisted and Tina continued to translate, it didn't look like there would be a way out of it without withdrawing the boast. So, it surprised me when Chef said that it would take some time to prepare, and we probably wouldn't want to wait. Unanimously, the whole table (of course) exclaimed that we would be willing to wait. Chef went back to the kitchen, and we were left at the table asking each other if this was really going to happen.
A few minutes later, Chef returned and said he wasn't comfortable cutting on Erin's back. I thought for sure he was backing out at this point. Then he brought out his prep assistant and asked us if he could do it on his back! We agreed. A few minutes later, they came out again and the following video pretty much captures what happened.
It happened pretty quickly with little warning, so I found myself on the wrong side of the table. Having only my DSLR, I had to reach around with the camera with my arms fully outstretched and at an angle (such that I could not see the viewfinder). There's no autofocus, so the focus slips off a bit and I wish I had gotten better quality footage of this. Anyway, to recap the video, the assistant leans over a table and pulls up his shirt. Chef takes a cucumber (halved longitudinally) and places it on the assistant's bare back. With a sharpened Chinese cleaver, he makes rapid but smooth cutting motions through the cucumber through the majority of the length of the vegetable. He then took the cut pieces and fanned it out across one of the dining table placemats showing they were paper thin! The assistants back was examined to show a slightly pink region where the cutting occurred, but no cuts. He then explained that had he had his good knife, he could have cut meat (specifically into a fine julienne often translated as "finely shredded pork"). At this point, we were willing to believe anything he told us.
Internet reviews for Jai Yun seem to be mixed. It occurs to me a lot of the negative reviews are because the restaurant doesn't look like you should be spending $100 or more per person and yet that's the price you're most likely going to pay. Also, there's an expectation that even great Chinese food is cheap (banquets are often not more than $20 or $30 per person) and the idea of spending fine dining amounts of money on Chinese food from a Chef who isn't a celebrity seems ridiculous. However, considering that a meal is usually over three hours long and there can be anywhere from twenty to thirty dishes, many of which are unparalleled, it's quite a deal.
I highly recommend dining at Jai Yun - as you can see, it's a unique and memorable experience. It's best to get some friends together to form a larger group and it really helps to have a Mandarin speaker in the group so you can communicate with Chef Nei Chia Ji. (He loves to be able to talk to his customers and is usually happy to answer any questions diners may have about the cuisine and his cooking philosophy. He doesn't often get to chat with his customers due to the language barrier, but when he does it's easy to tell that he's grateful for the chance to interact beyond the dishes he serves.) In fact, if you are making reservations by phone, it really helps to speak Mandarin (although, it is possible if you don't; just be patient and persistent). In some ways, it's easier to just book reservations via OpenTable and leave notes/comments on the reservation explaining the price point you wish to aim for per person (I really do recommend $100 or more; at lower prices, it limits the sort of dishes he can prepare because he purchases ingredients and only uses small portions to produce the best results [for example, only the couple of inches of Chinese celery that is most tender] as well as of the extensive labor involved in preparing the dishes) and any special needs your group might have. That way, Chef can find someone to translate the comments for him so he can understand what needs to be done for that particular reservation.
Language really is a huge impediment to the success of Jai Yun. They've managed to stay in business over the years because the food is phenomenal, but everytime I've been they have never had more than one or two other tables occupied during that evening. Sure, people walk in off the street, but they are turned away because the food limited because it is purchased fresh specifically for those dining that evening. (Plus, most walk-ins aren't looking to spend over $100 per person and up to four hours on dinner.) On our September 2012 visit, besides our table of fourteen, there were only two tables of two who ate in the restaurant all night. My hope is that word will spread as people try the spectacular Chinese cuisine that Jai Yun is serving and the restaurant will thrive. Food this good really shouldn't go unnoticed! Now I've done my part, please help spread the word!
680 Clay Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
Reservations also available through OpenTable
Click here to read more articles from Dining Out...