Food and wine pairing is often referred to as both an art and a science. The wine seems to pair particularly well with the local cuisine of the country in which it is produced, such as French or Italian wine with French or Italian cuisine. However, pairing wine with the flavors of Asian dishes is often seen as more difficult, especially dishes that have unique herbs, spices, and flavors compared to traditional Western dishes. Yet at Eight Table Restaurant by George Chen, tucked away at the end of a small alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the food and wine team has taken gastronomical new heights by pairing fine Chinese cuisine with some of the world’s finest wines.
“Most people don’t think Chinese food goes with varietal wines and that’s a total mistake,” says Executive Chef and Founder George Chen. Chen, an award-winning chef who has established and operated 16 restaurants around the world, launched Eight Tables in 2017. His goal was to showcase the best Chinese cuisine and give it the same respect it has in China, with Michelin-starred quality cuisine and service. wine menu with over 450 wines, as well as a wide selection of fine spirits, such as whiskey and sake. Eight Tables has won several awards, including Time magazine’s 2018 list of 100 best restaurants in the world.
Si Fang Cai’s Private Chinese Dining Experience
Eight Tables is designed according to the luxury Chinese culinary tradition “Si Fang Cai”, which means a personal dining experience in a house with a special chef – also called “private castle kitchen”. In China, these “private restaurants” are often found in a hidden place, in a secret alley, and require a password to enter. So Eight Tables also requires an access code to enter a locked door, before walking down a narrow alley, then taking a private elevator to a living room decorated with Chen’s family photographs and relaxing furniture.
Since the number “eight” has a special meaning in China and signifies good luck, the restaurant has only eight tables, separated into eight secluded sections of the restaurant with dim lighting and round polished light wood tables. The menu consists of eight courses ($250 per person) with an optional wine pairing for each course ($200 per person). Although closed for almost a year and a half during the pandemic, the restaurant reopened in mid-2021. The welcoming and professional staff of 15 to 20 employees wear formal suits and ties, and many have trained at Michelin-starred restaurants in San Francisco.
Wine and food are seasonal and very creative. “Here, we use pure ingredients and highlight the menu seasonally,” says Chen. “The creations are modern and interpretive but always with deep cultural relevance and cooked with integrity at the ‘mother’ kitchen.”
Food and wine pairing at Eight Tables restaurant
Sommelier, Pierre Steinerworks closely with Chen and co-leader Floyd Nunn, formerly at Quince and Benu, to create seasonal food and wine pairing menus. “Wines are meant to bring out the nuances of food and vice versa,” says Chen. “Food with a certain richness requires a wine with more mid-palate and a good acid frame to balance the flavours. Spicy foods hate heavy tannins, so a more aromatic, nutty (tropical) and mineral wine is best. We change wines quite often, and Peter Steiner, our Somm, has my general approval for matching the many evolving dishes with Chef Nunn’s creations.
The first of the eight courses is the most breathtaking and famous. Called the “Nine Essential Flavors of Chinese Cuisine” or “Jiu Gong Ge”, these are nine small dim sum-style dishes, each with a different classic flavor: salty, sour, sweet, salty, bitter, spicy and three great Chinese dishes. flavors: truffle, prawn and smoked noodle.
With this course, Steiner serves a Vintage 2013 Champagne Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru. “I always recommend a good bubbly with the first course,” Chen says. “Disparate primary flavors always match clean, bubbly yeasty acidity.” The pairing is excellent as the exfoliating bubbles, minerality and fresh citrus of the champagne complement the different bites and cleanse the palate for the next taste. Steiner cautions, however, to try bitter Chinese melon towards the end and before the sweet plum sauce date. Good advice.
The rest of the seven courses are individual courses, each artistically arranged and beautifully served, with duty captain Gregory Johnson explaining the preparation and ingredients of each course. Steiner then presents and pours each new wine pairing into elegantly designed Riedel and Zalto crystal wine glasses. The August 2022 menu included the following wine pairings:
- Nine essential flavors of Chinese cuisine with 2013 Champagne Larmandier-Bernier Premier Cru, France
- egg stream
uh sour with JJ Prum Riesling 2020 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett, Germany
- Steamed Monterey Calamari with Huber 2020 Gruner Veltliner Obere Steigen, Austria
- Dun Dan ceps with Hamakawa Shoten ‘Hina’ Sake, Japan
- Smoked Lapsang squab with Joiseph BFF Blaufrankisch 2020 (Natural wine), Austria
- Longevity noodles with Melville Syrah 2018 Santa Rita Hills, California
- Char Siu Iberian pork with Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, California
- Jasmine Tea Bubble Rice Pudding with Royal Tokaji Furmit 2018, Tokaji, Hungary
One of the most brilliant pairings was probably the fifth course with the dry-aged, smoked squab cooked with plum sauce and sticky rice. The tart flavors of berries Joiseph BFF 2020 Blaufrankisch were a perfect counterpoint to the salted duck, while the fruity notes of berries and plums united in a delicious marriage on the palate.
Steiner’s philosophy on food and wine pairing is quite artistic. “I leave by feeling and by instinct,” he says. “I taste a wine and I know exactly which of our dishes it will go best with.”
Steiner demonstrated this by bringing a second bottle of wine to accompany the Iberico Pork Char Siu course. Although it was magnificent with the original Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Spottswoode 2012, which brought out the savory, salty notes and fine texture of the pork, it took it to a high level with a Weingut Brundlmayer 2018 Gruner Veltliner from Kamptal, Austria. Steiner explained that Austria is the biggest pork consumer of any EU country, and their signature grape variety, Gruner Veltliner, with its complex spicy notes, pairs beautifully with many pork dishes.
Two wine collections at Eight Tables Restaurant
Huit Tables actually has two wine collections. The first is evident upon entering the restaurant, as a large display case filled with bottles of rare wine stands on the left side of the lounge. The second collection is hidden in a closed wine cellar at a temperature closer to the kitchen. It includes more recent wines, including most of the wines served in the food/wine pairing.
“The rare wines were mostly my collections going back to the early 80s,” says Chen. “At first, we didn’t have the budget to buy old library wines, so a few collector investors and I helped bring some wines on consignment. From now on, all the wines belong to the restaurant. Some highlights are 47 Cheval Blanc, older vintages like 45 1er Cru Classé and DRC. We also have all the CA Cults. I love CA wines from the 70s which with less alcohol and extraction…guess why Napa won the judging in Paris.
Prices on the wine list range from $50 per 750ml bottle for a Nieport, Rotulo, Dao, Portugal 2015 to $50,000 for the Chateau Cheval Blanc, Saint-Emilion 1947. Other high-priced jewelry includes $28,000 for a Romanée Conti, Grand Cru, Domaine de la Romanée Conti 1969 and $9,500 for Howling Eagle, Napa Valley 2018. There are also 20 wines by the glass, as well as a wide selection of sake, whiskey and tea. The corkage fee is $75 per bottle.
Chen concludes with the wisdom of a chef who has worked over 30 years in the restaurant industry and owns many classic wines. “I like older wines because they’re just more interesting…these wines are alive and tasting history is one of life’s great pleasures.” Close your eyes and have a bite and then a drink, if that makes you smile… you have a good game.
Here is a short video of the entrance to the eight tables aisle and some of the eight courses. Produced by Chelsea Canell for Destination California.
Chelsea Canell presents Eight Tables by George Chen in Destination California!