When Mister Jiu’s opened in San Francisco’s Chinatown in April 2016, it became only the third restaurant to occupy its building since it was constructed in the 1880s. Chef and owner Brandon Jew is a native of the city. He remembers peeling red-dyed boiled eggs and slurping down longevity noodles during banquets at the former tenant, Four Seas, a Chinese-American community keystone for holiday gatherings since the 1960s.
Jew signed his lease in 2013. It took him three years to transform the space into his dream project — and then another six or so months of polishing to boost Mister Jiu’s to its current standing as one of California’s most vital new dining destinations.
Jew has cooked under Bay Area nobles like Judy Rodgers of Zuni and Michael Tusk of Quince, with side gigs in Italy and Shanghai. In 2008 he was hired as the chef at Bar Agricole, where he cemented his local reputation making Cal-Ital paragons: lush tomato salads, smoked cod fritters, rabbit sausage.
At Mister Jiu’s, Jew is reinterpreting the Cantonese cuisine of his youth, with Northern California’s seasonal lushness as his guiding spirit. (The restaurant’s name nods to the correct pinyin spelling of his family surname; “Jew” was assigned to his grandparents during their U.S. immigration process.)
I had dinner at Mister Jiu’s six weeks into its launch last year, when I marveled at the exquisite design as the physical embodiment of Jew’s ambitions. The building’s turquoise façade looks out over the heart of Chinatown, perched atop the Far East Flea Market and sitting across from Eastern Bakery and the Wok Shop, two decades-old businesses.
The restaurant’s entrance has been shifted to the alley at the building’s rear. You walk into a dim bar, with bottles arranged on a long midcentury-modern console with shelves framed in funky squares and rectangles. Forge on through the darkness and you come out into the light: a sun-flooded dining room that exists in a pocket of time between past and present. Low-slung Danish Modern chairs line an elegant, L-shaped banquette and surround large round tables with built-in lazy Susans. Three gold lotus chandeliers, salvaged from the Four Seas decor, float overhead.
But the dreamiest element is the view through the back wall of windows. Beyond Grant Avenue’s electric urban tableau, gaze straight down Commercial Street, past low buildings painted in pastel shades and then up to the soaring Transamerica Pyramid. On a clear evening, you can see the Ferry Building clock tower and beyond it the fading sky above San Francisco Bay. This isn’t a cityscape that lifts you above it all; this is a vantage that drops you right into the thick of humanity, to scenes that are at once eternal and fleeting.
If Mister Jiu’s setting came off as instantly, astoundingly iconic, the actual dining experience took time to fine-tune. Jew had initially designed the menu to mirror the feasts served at Chinese-American banquet halls. The five-course, $69-per-person prix fixe was laid out family-style. Whether dining with one other person or as a party of six, you chose five dishes total to share.
On paper, the approach seemed so right: It paid homage to the building’s history, to the traditions of Chinatown dining, and to Jew’s childhood memories. In practice, it didn’t click. My first meal last May felt as much like a negotiation as it did a dinner. Ordering required too much group debate: Should we start with sizzling rice soup with rock shrimp, hot and sour soup with lily bulbs and green tomato, or oyster and clam custard with green garlic? For our shared entree: steamed halibut with smoked oyster sauce, hot mustard-amped fried chicken, or house-made silken tofu among ramps and morels?
The banquet-style structure was supposed to feel abundant, communal, and joyfully raucous. Instead it felt limiting and overwhelming. Jew acknowledged the false-step in a recent phone conversation. “My association with Chinese restaurants is that they’re almost too crowded to see how the kitchen orchestrates things,” he said. “In a way our early service was almost too calm — I wanted a little more chaos.”
In November Mister Jiu’s switched to an a la carte menu, and the restaurant’s foundation shifted into alignment. The meals I’ve had there this year certainly haven’t been chaotic, but there is a freewheeling joy to the mixing and matching of dishes — some that channel the mainstays at dim sum restaurants like San Francisco’s Yank Sing, a few generous meat or seafood platters for sharing, and many options that express Jew’s love of the regional bounty.
Chinese banquets often begin with plates of cold cuts and preserved meats; Jew channels that custom in the menu’s “charcuterie” section, which incorporates Chinese flavors while also drawing on the salumi skills he acquired working in Italian kitchens. He buys pigs’ heads from Devil’s Gulch Ranch in nearby Marin County, for example, curing the meat, shaping it into a roll, and curing it for three days. It arrives in thin slices, seasoned with chile oil and a spice blend of cumin, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorn, and finished with a pretty salad — maybe matchsticks of kohlrabi or radishes and quail eggs suspended in barley tea aspic. The zigzag of tastes and textures usher you straight into Jew’s culinary microclimate.
Don’t miss the hot and sour soup, a ubiquity from Chinese-American takeout menus reimagined here with reverence. Fresh tomato adds astringency to dark chicken broth, which is poured tableside into a bowl full of sliced lily bulb, nasturtium flowers and leaves, and crab. Inhale the rush of aromatic steam; it’s a prelude to the soup’s clean, gently tart swirl of flavors.
Classic Cantonese noodles and dumplings get their own reinventions, but they never stray too far from the source inspiration. Jew remembers his mother making cheong fun — the wide, slippery rice noodle rolls often served at dim sum — for breakfast on holidays. At Mister Jiu’s, the kitchen crafts noodles from rice flour and tapioca starch that turn out so delicate they verge on custardy. Garnishes of crabmeat and caviar contribute as much texture as they do flavor; an intense XO sauce heightens their respective sweetness and popping salinity.
He gets even more indulgent with a take on prawn toast. Pastry chef Melissa Chou makes a bouncy milk bread that Jew stuffs with prawn mousse (half of it coarsely pureed and the rest of it whipped to silk), bacon, ginger, and scallion. Crisped in lard, dolloped with aioli, and finished with a salt flavored with roasted and pulverized shrimp shells, this beast is a triumph of cholesterol and crunch. Pork wontons conversely show off Jew’s powers of restraint and finesse. He dyes the wrappers black with squid ink; garlic chives and ringlets of squid pick up a whiff of smoke from the wok. Sichuan peppercorns add their citrusy jolt. In appearance, the dish looks like something out of the Sicilian repertoire, but the wonton’s peppery pork filling hews unmistakably Chinese.
I love the many clever ways that Jew slips Bay Area culture into his cooking. His scallion pancakes possess the distinct tang of sourdough. He bakes pork buns with his variation of Dutch Crunch, a dappled, crackly sandwich-bread topping beloved in the region: The classic version includes rice flour and yeast; Jew interpolates with brown sugar and rousong (aka pork floss). Meyer lemon and sea urchin, two West Coast signatures, smooth the bitterness of tangled greens. No self-respecting Californian chef would use red food coloring for char siu’s traditional scarlet tint: Jew stains the barbecued pork with a mixture of bull’s blood beet juice and red-fermented tofu (made in-house, of course, using red rice).
The beverage program from bar manager Danny Louie adds gorgeous harmonics to Jew’s cooking. Bartenders mix heady cocktails, many of them laced with tea, that reveal their notes of lychee or passion fruit or bitter melon in subtle waves. Trust wine director John Herbstritt to direct you toward Gamays, sherries, and Rieslings that satisfy as much as they surprise.
Among the superb drinking and eating I savored this year at Mister Jiu’s, only one dish rang untrue — a comely but lackluster arrangement of raw kampachi with pomelo segments, radish, and white soy. It lacked the personal sense of place that otherwise informs and uplifts the menu. Jew may have transitioned away from the banquet format, but he never strayed from the restaurant’s deepest intention: to honor the Cantonese food of his heritage. Right now in American dining, fiery Sichuan cooking gets the most attention among regional Chinese cuisines. (Taiwanese fare is having a moment as well.) Jew’s approach trumpets the glory of refined, elegant Cantonese flavors, and he introduces the Californian aesthetic with the same success as other San Francisco chefs who draw on their own lineages — masters like Ravi Kapur at Liholiho Yacht Club, Val Cantu at Californios, and Pim Techamuanvivit at Kin Khao.
In a storied structure in the nation’s oldest Chinatown, Jew lays the groundwork for a fresh expression of Chinese-American gastronomy. Mister Jiu’s is a sight to behold.
Mister Jiu’s: 28 Waverly Place, San Francisco, 415-857-9688, misterjius.com. Open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Small bites $6-$11, shareable dishes (charcuterie, soups, vegetables) $13-$16, noodles and rice dishes $16-$22, seafood and meat platters $45-$110, desserts $8-$13.