There are a zillion restaurant openings in San Francisco in any given month, and if there’s a whiff of a famed-name chef or restauranteur behind said opening, the media will spin these events as the biggest, greatest, most exciting thing to hit the food scene. It seems their appetite for restaurant news, is just as insatiable as their, well, appetite. Mr Jiu’s, a new take on Chinese food in – you guessed it – Chinatown, was brought to life by Brandon Jew and opened in April to a hail of accolades. But is it worth all the hype?
First off, it’s worth taking a minute to share my benchmark. At a fixed price of $69 per head for five shared dishes (there’s a whole lot of fun to be had negotiating with your fellow diners about choosing those five plates) the bar is set high. We’re not comparing the food to what comes in those cute little takeout containers, or from a $15 all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Or at least, I’m not.
I definitely am comparing it to other meals that cost $70, regardless of cuisine of origin. And unlike many, I am certainly drawing on my family memories of the insanely delicious home-cooked 12 course banquets my dad would put together for Chinese New Year. And the fresh, light, yet richly flavored fish, meat and vegetable delights I’ve eaten in the homes of my aunts and uncles in Hong Kong. While Chinese food in the U.S. has a reputation for being slick with sticky sauces, oily at best, greasy at worst, and treated with MSG, this is not the Chinese food I know. So I urge you not to use this as the bar in evaluating Mr Jiu’s.
Enough preamble, onto the restaurant itself. First off, the location on Waverly Street is super cool. Personally, I love walking through Chinatown. The smells remind me of Hong Kong: yes, that would be garbage, cooked food and a whiff of drains all mixed into one, but I like it. The area has its own culture and isn’t concerned with trying to fit into Californian norms. From the exercises being done early morning in the small urban parks, to the way business is conducted and the elbowing on the sidewalk. It’s all reminiscent of Hong Kong.
Mr Jiu’s is located in a former Chinese restaurant in an old, partially brick building. It’s seductively tricked out with a dark sexy bar which opens into a bright well-lit dining room. There’s a spareness to the dining room decor which is authentic. (I’ve never found Chinese restaurants to focus too much on decor.) And there’s even the inevitable aquarium behind the bar. Nice touch.
There’s a great cocktail menu and hurray(!), there’s a full bar, so I was able to kick things off with a nice gin and tonic.
After you sit down at your table, your friendly waiter will walk you through the ‘banquet’ menu – which comprises choosing five dishes. I will say, I can’t think of a single Chinese banquet which only featured five courses. That would be a meager offering, to be sure. Having said that, portions here are typically American-sized, i.e. gargantuan. In my experience, true Chinese cooking is all about modest, yet impeccable bites of many, many things. As you peruse the menu, you’re brought some nibbles: pickled vegetables, rice crackers and candied walnuts. I am insanely fond of prawn crackers, and Mr Jiu’s version made with cabbage, so I asked for some more, and they were eager to oblige.
After some back and forth, we agreed to start with the steak tartare and turnip cakes. The former was beautifully plated, topped with mung beans, and so bright in color, I wondered if it had been dyed with beet juice. It was yummy.
The turnips cakes were numerous. Traditionally served for dim sum (brunch/lunch), it’s surprising to find them on a dinner menu. (Here’s an interesting recipe I found). They are the Chinese equivalent of comfort food. Starchy, caramelized from being fried and moreish, you don’t need more than a few bites. Mr Jiu’s gave us two each, which was probably more than we needed. They tasted fine—topped with cured olives rather than the traditional Chinese sausage, but could have been a touch more refined. Satiate the desire for starch without bombing our stomachs.
Next up came the lion’s head pork meat balls, these were tasty, but also over-sized, especially as they are so rich. I’d prefer small bites. And as you can see, they were swimming in pork fat. Which is fine if you like pork fat.
The fried rice with beef was average and slightly greasy. Done right, there’s no hint of oil, and the dish should be fragrant and light. Overall, these dishes were salty and we were all starting to get that slightly burned tongue that happens when you consume too much sodium.
We ended with the tendrils, which I believe is morning glory or water spinach. It’s served with fermented tofu and was good enough, although by this point in the meal we were pretty stuffed from those big portions and couldn’t really appreciate it.
We skipped dessert and compared notes the next day. I’ve gotten to the point where I judge a great meal by how I feel the next day. This whole aging process has my body super sensitive to over-salted, over starchy food. And sure enough, our entire party felt the after-effects the next day.
All in all, Mr Jiu’s is good enough, but it’s not amazing. There are other places to go and spend $69 per person and get a stupendous meal. One of my biggest challenges is whether Mr Jiu’s is truly a Chinese restaurant. Your place is set with a plate and spoon and fork. Sure there are chopsticks, but without a bowl and rice spoon, it’s hard to make them work well.
In a nutshell, if you have money to burn and your bar for Chinese food is low, check it out. If not, get a copy of Ken Hom’s classic Chinese cookbook and cook at home. You won’t be disappointed.
Mr Jiu’s is at 28 Waverly Place in San Francisco. Reservations can be made here.