Just as Charles Phan did for Vietnamese food when he opened The Slanted Door in the Mission in 1995, Brandon Jew is doing for the Cantonese food of his childhood — reinventing it by way of a contemporary, local, and decidedly upscale approach. One of the most eagerly anticipated restaurants to open in San Francisco in recent years, Mister Jiu’s officially opened last night on a charming block of Waverly Place in Chinatown, a neighborhood better known for fast, inexpensive food and tourist photo-ops than as a dining destination. If the restaurant’s name seems like a pun on the chef-owner’s, it is. When Chef Jew’s grandparents immigrated to the U.S., the processor translated their last name “Jiu” (which was also fabricated, but by them) as “Jew,“ and this remained the family name. So, the gesture of naming the restaurant Mister Jiu’s is a reclamation, of sorts.
As soon as the reservation system went online, I grabbed a table. And last night, we were seated next to Cecilia Chiang, the legendary chef and founder of The Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco. Though that restaurant is long gone, Chiang’s living-legend status as the mother of Chinese cuisine thrives. Her presence at the next table seemed auspicious, like a blessing of the endeavor.
The dining room occupies the first floor of the former Four Seas restaurant, and its huge windows onto the street backlight the spacious, high-ceilinged room. The ceiling is all about the gorgeous lotus-blossom chandeliers that hang down over the round banquet tables in the center of the room. Backlighting the other end of the room is the bright, open kitchen where Chef Jew mindfully worked at a clip all night long, surrounded by a blur of helpers.
Food is served family style here, $69 for five courses. Everyone at the table must agree on the choices, but courses can be ordered from any menu category: salad, soup, rice and noodles, veggies, and entrees. While I felt like I might as well close my eyes and point, so beautiful was the menu, we decided to order one dish from each category, figuring that was the chef’s intention.
We started with salt and pepper squid, Monterey squid battered in baking soda and rice flour for supreme crispiness and fried with fennel and kumquat (a brilliant idea) and served with a soy, ginger, garlic and serrano chile sauce.
Next up: a Marin Miyagi clam and oyster custard with barely cooked fava beans, lap cheong and green garlic, sweetly earthy and sea-driven, yet delicate. This was followed by the more assertive cold sweet potato noodles tossed in peanut sauce with chrysanthemum and Dungeness crab. For our vegetable, we chose the sweet pea tendrils with Meyer lemon and roasted garlic and a few asparagus tips.
We upgraded our main course for $25 (per table, not per person) to the barbecued pork, which featured both belly and spareribs, the latter slathered with black garlic paste, served with a side of homemade mantou buns and cucumber and daikon pickles. We tucked the belly meat into the steaming buns and dipped both those and the ribs in the hot mustard also on the plate. This recipe is destined to become a classic.
My one quibble with the place is that some of what we ordered would have been better as bona fide side dishes, rather than standalone courses — in our case, the tendrils and the noodles. But it’s a small complaint amidst the deep pleasure invoked by the whole.