The Kitchen (Millbrae) vs. Chef Wai (San Mateo)
The Kitchen easily wins this battle.
It opens much later, and I was impressed when a supervisor or manager was really nice to me the entire dinner. Usually when someone at a fancy Chinese restaurant (think Koi Palace) sees someone young (or white?), they don't care because they think you won't order the expensive stuff like live seafood and shark's fin. A chef at a different restaurant told me the staff at The Kitchen are really passionate about what they do and regularly meet to come up with new dishes to challenge themselves, instead of just churning out beef chow fun every day with little care.
The Kitchen's roasted squab is the *best* I've had outside of Asia. Succulent, tender with an explosion of flavor, and of course with a thin crispy enticing skin that screams "Forget your new year's resolution of reducing your fat intake!" My chef friend also highly recommends the grilled (or roasted?) pork neck (or belly?) dish. Been to The Kitchen three times now, and everything is excellent. Grade: Solid A+.
Chef Wai is certainly one of the best Cantonese restaurants in the area, but after hearing all the raving reviews, my experience was just underwhelming. My friend and I ordered a large variety of dishes to sample the chefs' skills, and most of them were just a tad bland. The salmon multi-grain rice tasted very clean, but the taste profile in the mouth was just too one-dimensional. Honestly it tasted too much like something I would/could do (and enjoy) at home. The tea-leaf chicken was served in a soy sauce, and the chicken again had little taste, partly because of the inherent quality of the chicken meat chosen and partly because of the kitchen preparations, and worse, it tasted like something you bought in a Chinese deli and microwaved a day later! I think the way they warm up the dishes needs some work. The roasted duck also had this "just warmed up again in the oven" feel. The taro egg pancakes had little taste again--I was expecting the "egg" to be salted duck eggs, but apparently I was wrong. The place is pretty, with high ceilings. Prices are high, and portions are smaller than usual. Again the meal wasn't bad, but I probably won't go back unless I hear convincing reasons from others. Now I understand why Chronicle didn't give Chef Wai a higher score. Grade: B+
Vincent, what day (or night) of the week did you go to Chef Wai?
Even though Andy Wai cooked the meal for our table the times we went twice, there were a few misses, like I thought the steamed fish was cooked unevenly the first meal, (and luckily I was not the one paying, at $30 a pound for a 2+ pounder I'd be pretty upset), and for one of the takeouts the beef brisket stew had rather dry and chewy meat.
KK, I think I went there late Sunday night, when the crowd was thinning. I did see Chef Wai himself talking to others in another part of the restaurant.
I also remember considering ordering the beef brisket stew (but didn't).
Next time I'm in San Mateo I'd better try Yuzu; I only had a takeout chirashi there once.
Vincent, I’ve got a few comments on Chef Wai from a dinner there on Dec. 21. Chef Wai was in the house, as he stopped by another table to help them decide their order. At that time, the menu was quite limited and the better dishes were off-menu. We liked two of our dishes and two were pretty bad. Not a good showing for a restaurant at this price point.
In the very good and special column: barbecue pork jowl and roast pig plate and a vegetarian special of fried tofu topped with mushrooms.
We specified what we wanted on our two-meat barbecue platter. The roast pig was excellent with a bubbly, crispy skin and tender, well-marbled meat. The char siu made with pork jowl was the best version I’ve had yet.
Image of Two barbecue platter -
One of the off-menu specials recommended by our waiter is a vege dish made with creamy-centered tofu discs with a crisp, fried crust. The complexity and depth of flavor was amazing for a vegetarian dish. I know that I stretched my palate trying to pick-up some pork or other animal stock, but didn’t find it. Beautiful choi sum and a variety of fresh, slippery Asian mushrooms provided sweetness and earth as well as a lovely contrast in textures.
Image of Mushroom-topped tofu -
Then in the awful column: egg white and seafood from the regular menu and the ginger scallion beef recommended by our server.
But first, let’s a look at Zen Peninsula's version of egg whites with scallops.
After being ga-ga over this dish at ZP, I was very interested in trying Chef Wai’s interpretation. Big mistake!
Image of Chef Wai’s Egg white and seafood -
This was mostly watery, bean sprouts, and soggy fried vermicelli. One had to search for the “seafood”, and then it turned out to be some rubbery bits of overcooked shrimp. Instead of being luscious curds like ZP’s, the egg whites here were stringy and tough. And, the whole dish had little flavor except the dirty water taste of bean sprouts. My mother was completely aghast.
Image of Ginger scallion beef -
Even a bigger crime was the special beef, because this dish was in the $20+ category. Tough, overcooked, gray interior lumps of steak. The seasoning on the outside was quite tasty, but the meat was inedible. When our waiter came by to check on us, I tried to send this dish back but he blew us off.
Total for this dinner at Chef Wai was over $80 for the four of us. My mom was disgusted and even one as thrifty as she found no reason to take the uneaten leftovers of these two home.
Having one dinner at The Kitchen on a crazy busy night and one at Chef Wai when the house was less than half-full, I’d vote for The Kitchen any day. Chef Wai himself is talented but his line cooks and servers are not carrying the kind of show one expects at his prices. Also, he needs to get rid of the paper napkins at dinner time, sheesh!
Peking Duck Set Dinner @ The Kitchen, Millbrae
re: Melanie Wong
I think you hit the nail on the head, the key is in the last bit of the 2nd sentence in your post.
To date I've only been to Chef Wai maybe 2 to 3 times for dinner with family who know the staff and Andy since Harbor Village days, and once was for lunch where I did not name drop my uncle/aunt or asked to see Andy himself, and just went in as a regular joe walkin to try the menu items. I'm more convinced than ever that unless you let Andy do the driving (and make it known to him if at all possible), "omakase", or whatever you want to call it, your mileage will definitely vary. In some ways this really isn't fair to the average customer who walks in with high hopes and/or learning of the chef's rep and history. Pandering to VIPs and frequent customers while shafting the rest of your customer base isn't the way to go either. I don't doubt there's some snobbery going on as well, now that I've been on both sides of the pond from having VIP treatment via family, to also going there myself w/o them and just ordering straight off the menu (with an average experience and only one good dish).
Andy doesn't cook all the dishes, I'm pretty sure he has at least one or two assistants with at least one Northern Chinese dim sum chef for XLB or scallion rolls/onion pancakes for lunch. The quality consistency will definitely change and perhaps drastically if they end up holding the reins which is very possible (then again I'm sure Andy has his off days as well).
The Ginger scallion beef I've had before at the restaurant (one time for dinner it was so so) and another as my parent's leftovers which surprisingly was still good. In Cantonese they call it Chow See Dik Cau (stir fried steak cubes), and I thought they would be using some cut of filet mignon. If this really were done right, it is superb. For some strange reason I remember the seasoning tasting like Maggi sauce, which is a special soy based sauced enhanced with MSG...
I will mention two Andy off menu dishes I had as leftovers from my parents dinner last week that still tasted decent after 2 days in the refrigerator then reheated.
Preserved veg (mui choy) steamed fish - The fish was insanely fatty and oily, but that overpowering was kept in check with the not so pungent mui choy preserved veg, similar kind used in your favorite pork belly Hakka clay pots. In It was either cod or a bass of some sort.
sour plum pork spareribs (wa mui pai gwut) - had a mild hint of sweetness with no strong sour plum flavoring at all (actually it was minimal). This was quite interesting and had a homey Cantonese feel to it.
With the way The Kitchen are running things, it seems like a no brainer of where to go to get Andy style innovative and quality dishes with the service to match. Either way go with your instincts and vote with your dollar bills, yo!
re: Melanie Wong
It is ashame that Chef Wai confuses highend restaurant service with snootiness and indifference. The food at Chef Wai is inconsistant but there were moments of brilliance. (I had one of the best dried beef Chow fun here....no grease and wonderful wok breath) However, it is hard to continue to patronize a place that makes you feel like they are doing you a favor by letting you eat there. The waiters work pretty hard here but the floor managers are clueless and they are not helping Andy build a loyal customer base. I hope Andy himself will see that this is indeed a big problem since I have heard many complaints of the same sort.
The experience at The Kitchen can be hectic sometimes, with uneven service, but at least they are right on with most of their food and the service people, including the floor managers, work really hard.
Not wanting to go off on a total rant, I didn't describe all of the numerous service problems at Chef Wai. Just one example of total cluelessness is when we exited. My mother had knee surgery and was using a walker. I'm pushing my father in a wheelchair. The hostess at the stand by the door airily said, "come back soon!" It never dawned on her to open the door for us, like any other human being would in that situation.
re: Melanie Wong
Now, you’ve got my ire up to rant about The Kitchen. Given our experience there, we will never appear there ever again in the future!
To celebrate a special occasion, we had driven from Palo Alto to Millbrae early on a Sunday evening, 5 pm at opening. We were ones first thru the front door, the lights were on, and none of the tables were occupied! I asked for a table but got a flustered look and no response from the hostess. She then called for another person – he could be a manager for all we know as he did not identify himself. This person abruptly told us that they could not accommodate us for dinner. There was no explanation, no apologies, absolutely no graciousness in his manner while informing us of this dire predicament. Left only to my own imagination, perhaps, that the entire restaurant was taken over and reserved for a big banquet that particular night, but we will never know. The door was fully open and there no sign indicating that the restaurant was not open for service.
I have been to restaurants ranging from the unpretentious to the best of restaurants and have been to the former Seafood Harbor, but never have I encountered this experience and this total lacking in public relations! There is no way we could have known beforehand that they chose not to be bothered with any walk-in customers. Turned away, I positioned my wife around (she was in her wheelchair) back out the front door to search for an impromptu alternative for the night. This experience created a damper for the evening.
Oh yes, the man at the Kitchen completed their non-service for the evening but added insult to injury - he did not bother to open the door to assist us on our way out!
Contrary to your experience, we did get an assist out after eating at Chef Wai’s. We will visit Chef Wai again some day.
I'm sorry to hear that. Yes, it is near impossible to get into The Kitchen, especially on a Sunday, without a reservation.
We are more than able to fend for ourselves with doors and such. It's just that this was in stark contrast to nearly every other Chinese restaurants, low to high end, where the staff and even the customers and strangers on the street go out of their way to assist us in every way possible.
I'm with Melanie on the rant thing. I don't want to make these responses about ranting but your experience at the Kitchen is, unfortunately, not surprising to me. Perhaps it's a topic for the "not about food" board but I think some of the floor managers at places like The Kitchen and Chef Wai, and even Koi Palace, are trained under a different school of restaurant managment. Many of these managers don't see their work as a job, per se, but rather, as a position. At successful and perceived as successful restaurants, they are then the people with power over the begging masses. Restaurant owners should heed the complaints since in the long run, unless VIP and perceived VIP's grow on trees, the novelty will wear off or there will be more competition and these places would fail. Sorry moderator for this tiny bit of digression.
I was there on a Thursday night and they had a party with ten tables. I lucky I made a reservation to get in. I had asked for a Sunday and was told that they were booked ahead for a few week.
Lucky I need a reservation for a couple weeks ahead for our poker club and I did in person and got a look at the reservation book and it looked petty full. But that is not an excuse for bad manner.
Food is decent for the price but it is better ordering ala carte than set dinner. I agree that this board should be about the food.
But we have to keep in mind that we are in the Bay Area, not LA or Vancouver where we have an abundance of high-quality Chinese restaurants in healthy competition. =)
Chef Wai's menu obviously aims for the high end, and some dishes reflect that ambition, and thus the B+. I've talked to other Chinese customers of Chef Wai, and they agree with what K K said above: namely that the dishes not cooked by Chef Wai himself, because you're not important enough for Andy to cook himself for you, are usually not that great. But a typical dish at Chef Wai is still most likely going to be quite a bit better than a typical dish at a no-name restaurant, I think.
Andy definitely comes out to chat briefly with his loyal fans and supporters but not everyone in that category is a VIP big spender (some might be friends of friends of friends etc) but bottom line is that he definitely remembers those loyal fans since the 95/96 era of his time at the old SF Harbor Village. I don't doubt some (lurker) hounds in that category are reading this right now as well. Though to be fair,
there have been reports by other hounds who ate at Chef Wai, perhaps on not so busy days, when Andy also came out, greeted them and even offered recommendations/helped with ordering. Perhaps that can happen on slow days. Luck of the draw? Who knows.
Perhaps my initial posting was a bit harsh, leading to Vincent's "not so important" summary statment, though I can kind of feel that negative "snobbish" vibe, but that is not coming from Andy himself, just my 2 cents.
Let's face it, this snobbery or whatever you want to call it, exists everywhere to any extent I'll bet, even high end places like Koi Palace (there's tons of horror stories I heard a while back of mgmt/waiters/VIPs but let's not go there, Chinese restaurant politics is one of the worst gossip topics and I wish I didn't hear any of that at the dinner table one time) or at non Chinese restaurants (yes even around the corner at Sushi Sam's one time, a big big big spender was getting all of Sam's attention, all the attention I got was from the waiters, and this big spender was stressing Sam out with like 4 nigiri orders at a time for him and his 2 or 3 kids at the bar). I'm sure this snobbery is a million times worse in numerous places and speakeasies in Hong Kong (and let's not go there either haha).
But think about it, if you were the chef/owner of such an empire, what is in your best interest? It's all business, much like what Tronald Dump says. Unless you're a mom and pop small shop churning out the same small variety of items, or cheap humble down home old school family style simple dishes that uber snotty VIPs don't want to be caught dead in, then everyone gets the same treatment. ie who's going to spend $500 on a bowl of ramen from Santa, or rack up $100 for 2 people at Everyday Beijing.
Going back on topic, you're right Vincent. Even the regular menu offerings at Chef Wai do on a typical day, surpass a lot of other places, even the dim sum restaurant stir fry plates, whether Andy cooks them or not. Though hopefully nobody is ordering regular fried rice and then saying it was overpriced and not tasty...
re: K K
There are quite a few threads on The Kitchen but I've decided to add on to this one:
7 of us gathered on 6/29 for a bon voyage dinner for a friend and her family who were leaving the next day for Japan. I made the reservation in person about a week ahead of time not wanting to take any chances! Having learned that it's best to eat in popular places that are this busy early, I made the reservation for 6:00 pm.
This was great because parking was still available in their lot and there were only 2 other groups there when we walked in. I have to say that I was treated very well on the day I went in to make the reservation and we were also treated very well when we arrived for the dinner.
I had emailed the wo choy menu and the take out menu to the others in the group so we could get a head start on ordering. We had a hard time deciding so just took the easy way out and ordered the "Special Family Dinner" for 5 @ $178 plus a couple of things off the regular menu. This menu includes: Roasted Pork BBQ Appetizers, Deep Fried Shrimp Ball, Stir Fried Scallop & Squid with Veggies, Shark's Fin Soup with Sliced Chicken, Bean Sprout with Mushroom and Abalone Sauce, Roasted Squab Platter, Ginger Scallion Lobster, Steamed Live Fish, House Special Fried Rice, Dessert of the Day.
We asked to substitute roast duck for the squab and added Salt & Pepper Squid, no extra charge for the duck substitution; I don't recall how much the S&P Squid was.
The food started to come out very quickly - in fact, if I could have, I would have asked that they slow it down a bit but knowing how busy the place gets, we just let it ride. We were all hungry so it was ok.
The Roast Pork BBQ Appetizer plate was great: Crispy skin roast pork and BBQ'd pork neck meat being the best of the 4 items on the plate.
The Deep Fried Shrimp Balls are something I really could do without - deep fried golf balls of chopped or ground shrimp - not an exciting dish to me but we all ate them anyway :-) Not bad, just not interesting.
The Stir Fried Scallop & Squid with Veggies was very fresh and clean tasting. Large pieces of sea scallop, squid bodies, sugar snap peas, water chestnuts in a clear, light sauce. Nicely done, typical Cantonese stir fry.
Shark's Fin Soup w/Sliced Chicken: Ok, but something I could do without and not miss it. The chicken was cut into very thin julienne like strips.
My memory is a little rusty, but I don't recall bean sprouts, rather I recall a dish of Abalone-type mushrooms over beautiful fresh spinach - this was a great dish. Couldn't have been more fresh tasting. A winner.
The Roast Duck was one of the best I think I've every had. Succulent, crispy skinned and very, very flavorful. What roast duck should always be but sometimes isn't...
The lobster was good but doesn't stand out in my food memory. Same for the steamed live fish: good, clean tasting. It was nicely cooked and I believe they had deboned it for us before serving which made it very easy for us to deal with...
The real clunker of the meal was of all things, the fried rice!!! I rarely eat fried rice and would have probably been happier with steamed rice. It had chunks of chicken, shrimp and veggies in it but it tasted like it had been sitting in a steam table maybe since lunch...
We were a table of 50/50 Gringos/Asians so they asked if we wanted the Dessert - I think maybe they thought not but we said yes and it was the ubiquitous red bean soup - not too sweet, ok.
To recap, service was very quick, maybe a little too quick but plates were continuously changed out and serving dishes were consolidated constantly so that the lazy susan could handle the new dishes as they arrived. Everyone was very courteous and I didn't feel that we were given any different service than any other table. The quality of the food was very high in my estimation, very simple Cantonese dishes made with fresh, good quality ingredients. I believe the final cost was about $37/pp including tax and tip.
By 6:45 the room was full and there were quite a few people waiting for tables. The bottom line is: make a reservation at an early time and maybe weeknights are best!