I do apologize for that title -- it's horrible, isn't it?
In this line of work, it isn't hard to come across good food, great food, or even simply amazing food (*cough*Region*cough*), but coming across truly transcendent food is an entirely different animal (preferably roasted with rosemary salt and served with butter-grilled fingerling potatoes).
I happened across some truly transcendent food a few months ago and then I managed to transcend myself once again a few weeks ago. A business dinner in late June saw me dining at Jai Yun in Chinatown. This isn't the Chinatown of tourists, gates, and rampaging red dragons. This is the Chinatown where the people who work in Chinatown live, play, and, thankfully, eat.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure (since people seem to be all about that these days), I must admit that my first visit wasn't an auspicious one. The seven of us sat down and looked at the menu. But there isn't a menu. At Jai Yun, the wee little home of the best authentic Shanghaiese food in the city, you order by price and put your stomach in the hands of the chef, who cooks whatever is fresh and wonderful at that day's market. The prices start at $35 per person and go all the way up to $150 per person.
I was eating with food magazine people and, predictably, they are people who know their food and know their restaurants but this had us flummoxed. What do you order? How do you know if it's enough? We settled on the $35 per person option and waited. The first course came out and was placed on a lazy susan in front of us. We all stared. It was a tiny heap of something. None of us knew exactly what it was because we were all so aghast at the portion size that no one heard the waitress' description. Surely more was coming! Well, more came, but they were also tiny heaps of something. I'm not saying it wasn't tasty, because it was, really, really tasty! It's just that with seven overly-polite people, with no one wanting to appear greedy, each of us would take a single leaf or bean between our chopsticks, place it on our plate, and spin the dish to the next person. At most, we all got a single small mouthful of each dish. Sometimes, when no one else liked the dish, a few of us got lucky and got a bit more as a result.
It became funny after awhile. By some form of starved logic, we became convinced that we were only going to get eleven courses, but I lost count after thirteen. Admittedly, the portions did become slightly bigger as the meal wore on. We ended with best Kung Pao Chicken I've ever tasted -- all lightness and fiery spice -- and a glistening pile of amazing stir-fried eggplant that haunted me for months. By the end, we got quite silly with suggestions that we all go out for a burger. However, on the way home I was struck by something interesting: I wasn't hungry. I wasn't full. I was just...pleasantly sated. Too many times I've risen from an elaborate, expensive meal to feel as though all I want to do is have my stomach amputated, or, failing that, sleep a very long time. Of course, when you're that full, even sleep is painful. This feeling that I had experienced so many varied flavors, yet wasn't going home thinking that a vomitorium would be a great addition to the apartment, was a novel one.
I was so taken by this novel feeling, this unique experience, that I knew I would give Jai Yun another taste. To celebrate our return to San Francisco after our summer in San Diego, my husband and I back to Jai Yun and decided on the $45 menu for two. It was still a point of confusion for me about what exactly determines the price -- was it number of courses? Amount of food at each course? Number of courses and amount of food together? None of this really made sense, but several knowledgeable friends told me it was more about the price of ingredients used than anything else. So, if you pay a higher price, you might get the more expensive fish instead of the tofu, or the pounded abalone instead of the seaweed.
I had already told Mathra all about my first visit to Jai Yun, so he was well-prepared and quite eager to see what the hell it was all about.
Jai Yun is the most literal hole-in-the-wall I've ever seen. There's one room that seats maybe twenty-five people at most, a tall cooler with soft drinks and beers, and Christmas decorations on the walls. There appears to only be one seating per night but I think you can choose your own time when you make your reservation.
By the end of our meal, we had been served eighteen courses in the form of shredded cucumber; tofu; jellyfish; smoked and glazed fish; poached cold duck; shaved lotus root with sesame oil; parsley with pine nuts and mushrooms; dried beef; hot, pounded abalone with beaten egg whites; gluten with red pepper and yellow chives; fat, glossy shrimp with three kinds of peppers; tofu and beans with scallions and edamame; crispy orange beef; chinese celery with tofu and yellow chive; squishy noodles with leeks ginger, and peppers; green tomato and parsley; seasoned ground chicken; and finally, as a perfect end to a transcendent night, that lovely sweet-sticky stir-fried eggplant with ginger, scallions, red pepper flakes, and tangerine peel.
I'd go into more detail about the individual dishes but basically, when the waitress put the dish in front of us, she gave us the briefest of descriptions. Not that she was surly, but I think there was a language barrier. When we asked about a particular bean on the plate, she didn't know how to tell us what it was in English. No matter, it's rather exciting just to eat and enjoy without necessarily needing to know the full composition of the dish, down to the last herb and spice. Every dish was more delicious and unique than the last, and after we cleared each plate, we sat in excited anticipation of what would next come out of the kitchen.
Both times I dined at Jai Yun, there was a large party of about ten or twelve who had evidently eaten there quite a few times. They knew the hostess and they knew the gastronomic ritual. On my most recent trip, the large party was celebrating someone's birthday and a few dishes had been specially prepared for them. Because we were the only other diners, we got to benefit from those specially-prepared dishes in the form of the pounded abalone with beaten egg. It was exquisite.
When the last cup of tea is drunk, a charming little ritual takes place. The waitress/hostess is called over and asked if the chef would come out into the dining room. A round, smiling chef comes out of the kitchen. And even though the call out is expected, he comes shyly, wiping his hands, and everyone in the room applauds. Some even stand. The delighted chef bows around and waves to all of his diners. It's a heart-warming change from the chefs who parade around their dining rooms like stalking royalty, expecting, yet often sneering, at the admiring whispers their presence excites.
I must say that the $45 menu did fill us up quite considerably. I do wonder what $35 for two would be like, but I see no reason to order it when such delights await for just $10 more.
923 Pacific Avenue at Powell
San Francisco, CA 94133