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May 3, 2014 10:37 PM

Chowdown at Jai Yun [San Francisco, Chinatown]

Jai Yun is not like other restaurants offering a $100 prix fixe lunch. For example, you might be accustomed to the waitstaff naming its purveyors and describing the preparation in loving detail. Here, unless you speak Mandarin, you might only be told, when pointing to a tall stack of thin slices, "meat." And there is no written menu. But in some ways, the mystery fuels the excitement of experiencing Chef Nei Chia Ji's intricate, subtle, and unusually delicious offerings. For hounds, unraveling the secrets of a dish is something of a sport. What else ya gonna talk about for 3 hours?

Without further ado, photos: http://www.jeffersonscher.com/photos/...

Let the discussion begin!

And many thanks to hyperbowler for organizing it.

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  1. Thanks for the pic. #1 looks like a pork terrine, which might also have chicken in it. The greens in #12 should be ma lan tou, or Indian aster.

    1. A truly inspired, wonderful meal, probably the best Chinese meal I've had in the US. No kidding.
      The abalone with egg whites were a perfect textural marriage. The abalone was sliced razor thin but still, somehow, had a slightly chewy (in a good way) mouth-feel. Brilliant.
      The wheat gluten was succulent and a flavor explosion. Best version of this I've ever had.
      Crispy fried mushrooms - OMG! Earthy, crunchy, with sweet and spicy notes. These were candy, pure and simple.
      Taro Balls and Spare Ribs - another home-run. The taro balls melted in your mouth and the pork ribs, beautifully tender, complimented and elevated the texture. Maybe the best dish of the afternoon or me.
      The Chinese celery and with brown tofu highlighted the chef's incredible knife skills. Uniformity with pristine, clean flavors. Just beautiful.
      The Braised Pork Knuckle also may have the best I've ever had. The meat was perfect and the sauce was glistening. Yum.
      The Crispy Fried Eggplant got oohs and aahs from everyone. Eaten while still piping hot, the eggplant was almost a liquid. Sublime. Never had anything like this anywhere.
      The only misses for me were a slightly overcooked crispy fish and an over-fried version of crispy beef.
      A remarkable, memorable meal. Thank you hyperbowler for organizing, Melanie for the terrific wines, and the rest of my fellow hounds for a wonderful afternoon.

      1. This was a remarkable meal, both in terms of the food and the company. Great wine pairings by Melanie to boot! If anyone finds it useful in coming up with a write-up, here's a list of ingredients we discussed or are shown in photos.

        Gong cai aka "tribute vegetable" (dried or fresh?)
        Gai lan (chinese broccoli)
        Fresh water chestnuts
        Goji berries
        Lotus root
        Ma lan tou (we thought it was shepherd's purse (ji cai))
        Chinese celery

        Red radishes
        Red chilies
        Red onion
        Red bell pepper
        Green pepper or chili
        Enoki mushrooms
        Shimeji mushrooms
        King oyster mushrooms
        Wood ear mushroom

        Tangerine peel
        Sichuan peppercorns
        White pepper
        Black vinegar
        Star anise
        Sesame oil
        Light soy sauce
        Dark soy sauce
        Rice wine
        Rock sugar

        Egg whites
        Thousand year old eggs

        Corn starch
        Mung bean starch
        Mung bean noodles
        Wheat gluten (kau fu)

        Tofu skin (yuba)
        Fresh (silken) tofu
        Pressed tofu (five spice)

        Fresh shrimp
        Dried shrimp
        Surf clams
        White fish cubes
        Whole fish of some kind

        BBQ beef tongue
        Beef tenderloin
        Chicken pieces
        Pork ribs
        Pork shoulder
        Pork sung
        Pork shin (? reminded me of head cheese)
        House cured bacon

        3 Replies
          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I don't recall the highest price point, but the son of the owner only mentioned price point above the $100 we chose for our group size.

            If you can speak Mandarin, you might have luck ordering specific dishes beforehand. Maybe it's a seasonal thing, but I didn't notice any bamboo shoot dishes. Reading some previous reviews, some smaller Shanghai staples in his repertoire include drunken chicken, vegetarian goose, smoked fish, and salty duck. For larger groups, he's done braised duck and eel dishes.

          2. re: hyperbowler

            It'a possible shepherd's purse was used in that dish, but it's a very traditional use of ma lan tou in Shanghainese cuisine. The name of the vegetable is used as the name of the dish, and if you do an image search on "ma lan tou" you'll find many pictures of it chopped and mixed with finely chopped gan doufu.


          3. I have to second ChewChew's enthusiasm. Jai Yun is like the French Laundry or the Chez Panisse of Chinese restaurants. You don't just put a big pile of food on your plate and eat it with rice; it's bite after bite of perfection that you marvel and moan over. It's an unprepossessing space and as relaxed an atmosphere as the typical Chinese place. This isn't an intellectual exercise of a meal, either, like some molecular gastronomy kind of thing--it's just like, "wow that is EXACTLY how broccoli (or radish, or chicken) should always taste," and every piece is cut to the exact right shape and size and cooked the exact right way with the best flavor.

            I have never had fried food as delicate as those mushrooms and that eggplant. Each bite had an incredibly thin shell of flavorsome perfect crunch. Those were two of the best things I have ever tasted in my life.

            If you look at the photo of the soft tofu (dish #13), you can see the blobby pile of white underneath all the colorful garnishes. Somehow that humble substance was SO delicious, salty, savory, such an apotheosis of comfort in a soft mouthful that it actually conjured strong emotion in me. This guy's food is so vivid it's transcendent, poetic, really truly. Something about him being alone back in the kitchen, slicing everything himself, only one wok on the flame and one dish at a time coming from his hands alone upped the ante--he cooks from the bottom of his heart and you can taste it. I have never experienced anything like that before in a restaurant.

            I don't even know what to say; "the radishes were really good too" doesn't do this meal justice. The food is subtle yet immediate, not challenging. It calls you to awaken to it. This is what a tasting menu is supposed to be like.

            Many thanks to hyperbowler and my delightful tablemates for a uniquely fulfilling lunch.

            1. This was a remarkable meal, both in terms of the food and the company. It was great to hear about people's previous experiences at Jai Yun, as well as thoughts on the food as it progressed. The server doesn't speak much English, so it was useful to have read previous reviews on Chowhound and at http://www.cookingforengineers.com/ar... . This was my first time there, and if the glowing that follows doesn't make this obvious, I loved it. Highlights include:

              Deep fried taro ball with spare ribs: the taro balls had a crisp outside, and an almost candy-like and fluffy center of taro. This is a masterpiece and there's nothing like it available around here. It's so good, it distracted from the other thing on the plate, what might be the best version of sweet and sour pork ribs I've eaten. This could reflect the Chef's regional style more than his personal touch, but the balance of sugar to black vinegar was ideal. No magma-like corn syrup sauce or overcooked pieces. For better or worse, no black cardamom or smokiness as in the version at Little Shanghai, or sesame seed topping.

              Crispy eggplant : fresh from the kitchen, the eggplant pieces melted inside the crisp and tangy outsides. There's a light cornstarch coating, but it doesn't feel like the shell of another ingredient as much as eggplant itself. Fantastic.

              Wheat gluten with vegetables : Jai Yun's wheat gluten is fresh and the preparation light-- the taste and texture of the gluten are emphasized. The wheat gluten at Chinese vegetarian restaurants doesn't come close to Jai Yun's. Wheat gluten at Shanghainese restaurants in the Bay Area is never made to order and either uses gluten more as a sponge for a delicious sauce (e.g., Little Shanghai) or uses canned gluten (e.g., Rice Valley).

              Abalone with egg whites : Matched the texture and color of egg whites to abalone, and each added their own flavor. Egg whites with other seafood (e.g., scallops or crab) are available at Cantonese places, but I like this prep better.

              Pork shank (?) : struck me as very European, kind of like head cheese, and just as good.

              Sliced beef tongue: comparable to Chinese BBQ pork.

              Ma lan tou with five spice tofu : much fresher tasting than the versions at Little Shanghai or House of Pancakes, and not water logged. (someone at the table thought this was Ji Cai, but I think that's typically prepared saltier than ma lan tou).

              Braised pork shoulder : the custardy fat layer bests any version I've had in the Bay Area, including China Village. Unlike other places, there were no dried out or unpalatable pieces of flesh from freezing. He gives a restrained a portion of sauce, which was excellent and star anise flavored, but didn't seem as dark and intense as the version at Jesse in Shanghai.

              Tangerine peel beef: dried out, not very good.

              Whole crispy fish : slightly overcooked, I liked the sauce more than than fish.

              Pickled ginger salad: The bright flavors of ginger made it seem like this was just ginger, but
              cookingforengineers.com/article/247/Jai-Yun-San-Francisco lists this as pickled cabbage. Excellent.

              Chinese broccoli (gai lan) : light garlic flavor and cooling, but not bitter, appetizer. Excellent.

              Gong cai : none of us had eaten "tribute vegetable" before. Fun texture-- there's an initial cucumber-like crunch, followed by a tougher crunch from a more compact section. The latter crunch was reminiscent of some forms of preserved vegetables, so I suspect the gong cai had been rehydrated or preserved in some way.

              Crispy fried mushrooms : incredibly light and not remotely oily. Some of the best fried mushrooms I've ever eaten.

              Green soybeans and tofu skin : Celtuse FTW. Tofu skin acts takes on the role of a leafy vegetable as it inherits a vegetal flavor from the salted cubes of celtuse and the fresh taste of soybeans.

              Without corkage, the meal came to $132 including tax and tip. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

              For the price, you get 28 dishes and a large enough serving to appreciate each dish. As a traveller in Shanghai last year, it would have taken me several meals to cover as much ground. The only time I get that variety here is at a Chowdown, which can cost as low as $20, but there's never an opportunity to appreciate each dish. That's either because of portion size or palate fatigue, neither of which happened at Jai Yun. The meal centers around fresh vegetables and protein rather than the simple carbs and fat that make food inexpensive and filling.

              The ingredients are high quality and in some cases fresh versions of things more commonly puchased frozen, canned, or not made in-house. Still, you're mostly paying for labor and technique. The chef shops in Chinatown, and the most expensive ingredients are probably the pork shoulder, which he can only do for a big group, and the abalone, the only "exotic" raw ingredient. There aren't exotic Asian ingredients that are expensive because of their lack of sustainability. Compared to high end Cal or modernist cuisine, there aren't any foraged mushrooms, foods that shouldn't be edible (e.g., hay), or ingredients with named pedigrees. One legit criticism is that, despite tons of seasonal Chinese produce available in markets, you don't see a lot of it at Jai Yun. Celtuse was the only truly seasonal vegetable and asparagus is pretty good right now, but both were used once and only sparingly. Looking at the calendar, I wouldn't describe any of the other ingredients as being at their seasonal peek. But, as heidipie said, "the radishes were really good too." If he can make such a pedestrian vegetable memorable, that holds a lot more value than something's growing season or whether its organic.

              14/28 dishes were seemingly vegetarian. Even the simpler vegetable dishes aren't something easy to reproduce at home. A mandolin could give you width, but not the shapes his skills allow. The cold dishes were all lightly seasoned and most, as good as any California cuisine place, showcased the natural flavors and textures of the ingredients. When the serving plates were empty, they were clean. It's rare for a cold dish / salad in a Bay Area Chinese restaurant not to leave a big puddle of sauce/dressing. On a related note, Chinese food, especially the sugary and oily foods favored in Shanghai, are often called "greasy." That criticism is partially because, to paraphrase a blog post of Fuschia Dunlop, Chinese food wears its oil on the outside (e.g. stir frying) and Western food wears its food on the inside (e.g., butter laden mashed potatoes). But even in the deep fried dishes, Jai Yun's dishes didn't "wear" any oil and felt light.

              In high end restaurants, it's unsatisfying when chefs compose a beautiful arrangement of ingredients, but leave it to the diner to figure out how much sauce, foam, etc. to get on their fork. This is especially annoying at small plates places, or even some Chinese chowdowns I've attended, where someone inevitably gets a spoonful of ginger with only a shred of meat. Chef Nei Chia Ji cuts and plates the dishes so that you can get the same experience no matter when or how much you take from the shared serving plate. His composition has function, and if someone hogs too much gluten in their serving, color will guide the next person to getting a balanced spoonful for their serving.