One of the highly touted new dining destinations in San Francisco has added a spark to the city’s traditional Chinatown with a buzzing marketplace and restaurant. China Live has arrived.
China Live, in the former Gold Mountain dim sum restaurant space on Broadway, is a two-story food emporium that some have compared to New York’s Eataly. It’s not as expansive as Eataly, but China Live hopes to combine Chinese delicacies with a shop for Chinese-inspired housewares and culinary supplies.
Opened a couple of weeks ago, China Live is the dream of George Chen (of the former Betelnut) and Cindy Wong-Chen. The beautiful space accented with reclaimed Chinese elm is primarily a first-floor restaurant known as Market Restaurant, along with the Bar Central and a shopping area known as the Marketplace. At the entrance is the Oolong Cafe, which would do well during the day but since China Live is only opened from 5 p.m. right now, most people use the Oolong Cafe as an area to hangout while they wait for a table. (UPDATE: China Live started serving lunch on March 14, 2017, so go get your lunch on.)
A second-floor restaurant to be called Eight Tables has yet to open, so for now all the food is dished up at the Market Restaurant, which has a changing menu featuring dishes created at stations surrounding the dining area. There’s a wok station and a charcuterie station that features a Chinese earthen oven where pork is slow cooked.
Restaurant consultant Joey Altman worked with Chen to develop the food program.
On Friday night, I checked out China Live with my niece Margot. We started at the bar, where I had the Singapore Sling ($13) while Margot had the Trader Vic’s Mai Tai ($13). There’s a real tiki lounge feel to the menu, and while I appreciate my tall Singapore Sling, it felt a bit light, almost watery (maybe too much pineapple juice?).
At the bar you can order the entire menu, and we started with the xiao lung bao, or Shanghai soup dumplings. China Live offers up the priciest dumplings in town with just five pieces for $9. Still, they were a delight, with a thin skin that keeps their shape and the tender pork filling falling apart in my mouth and blending with the rich consomme. They might not have the aggressive flavor of other places, but the structure and taste were on point if you like your soup dumplings delicate and refined.
We moved over to the dining area and tried a variety of dishes, starting with the signature Peking Duck with Kumquat Glaze ($16), which are served in sesame bun pockets (think pita bread) and comes five to the plate. While Margot and I both enjoyed the crispy duck skin with refreshing cucumber julienne strips, we both felt there were too much of the kumquat glaze, overpowering the delicate flavor of the roasted duck. If you get this, ask to have the glaze served on the side so you can put how much you like. You will thank me.
The eight-spiced beef cheek in lettuce cups ($14) was a light, refreshing dish with tiny cubes of beef cheeks. And the lotus buns with pork belly, sauerkraut and peanut glaze ($10) were tender and easy to eat.
Some of the main dishes seem heavy (lots of rice) and expensive ($24-$28). We tried the three treasure bao zai or claypot rice ($19), with shiitake mushrooms, greens and lap cheong. The thinly slice lap cheong of Chinese sausage was nice, but there weren’t enough of it compared to the huge amount of rice in the claypot. At least the rice was perfectly cooked, soft and tender but still keeping its shape, almost like glutinous rice in lo mai gai. We balanced our meal with a plate of yu choi ($12), or Chinese market greens with garlic.
There are four types of dessert, but you have to order the sesame soft serve with mango shaved ice ($9), done nicely in the style of Taiwanese ice (which means light and fluffy shaved ice that gives it a silky texture). There are toppings that provide crunch, making the overall dish a great ending to a meal.
After our meal, Margot and I checked out the marketplace, which as you might expect, showcases beautiful housewares at premium prices (think Ferry Building).
China Live, of course, was buzzing for a Friday night with a lot of people curious to check out this new space. It’s interesting to see Chinatown regulars wading into China Live early on but are often turned off by the high prices. But China Live is following the trend started by Brandon Jew’s Mister Jiu restaurant on Grant Avenue, which brought sophisticated dining to Chinatown. These are the kinds of eateries that have bolstered neighborhoods like the Mission and Hayes Valley, so maybe it’s time Chinatown gets some love?
The deets: China Live, 644 Broadway (between Stockton and Grant), San Francisco. PH: 415.788.8188. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. from Thursday through Saturday). Closed Monday. Walk-in only for Market Restaurant. chinalivesf.com
Get a mini tour of the new China Live in my gallery below:
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