Friday, December 5, 2014
Crystal Jade Opens in San Francisco, USA!
Bravo! Crystal Jade has made it to the United States! What a proud moment for them. The US$14 million CJ Jiang Nan in San Francisco is their first outlet outside Asia, and it's a grand statement in the food savvy city. At 20,000 sq feet, it's easily one of San Francisco's largest restaurants. This is where they are bringing their brand of authentic Chinese cuisine to the world stage. America sure could do with some real Chinese food, not the greasy General Tso's or chop suey variety. Many of my friends were so happy to hear about CJ opening in San Francisco.
My story on this epic opening is out on Yahoo and Makansutra:
But here are more photos and insights from the trip. This is a bumper post with over 40 photos! CJ Jiang Nan truly is a gorgeous site, carved into so many areas to explore - spacious dining hall, private rooms, a chic bar, plus magnificent outdoor patio. And the food is astounding. You'll see.
The Grand Opening VIP reception on Friday, 14 November 2014, saw San Francisco's who's who converging to see what Crystal Jade had to offer.
This was the event of the year for me, and I was tremendously honoured to be invited to be a part of this important milestone.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee cut the ceremonial ribbon together with Singapore Consul-General Chris Cheang, Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holding CEO Ip Yiu Tung, COO James Quek, partner Ghassad "Gus" Murad, and others (first photo). Even the ex-mayor, Willie Brown, joined in the festivities.
The prime location at 4 Embarcadero Center is right next to the Hyatt Regency, and appropriately close to the financial district. The restaurant officially opened to the public on 18 Nov 2014.
Here is Mr Ip (fourth from left) flanked by daughter and wife. What a wonderful moment it must have been for the family. They are some of the most humble and lovely people I've met.
Once past the heavy studded wooden doors, you'll be greeted by a stunning array of carved wood panels that extend up to the second floor.
The opulent decor is by interior designer Ken Fulk. Once Mr Ip saw samples of his designs, he wanted nothing else.
Once up the stairs or elevator, you'll see a grand walkway with impressive large prints of Jiang Nan scenery. There are live tanks of seafood too, just before this.
As its name suggests, CJ Jiang Nan aims to serve food from south of the Yangtze River, encompassing regions of Hunan, Jiangsu, Sichuan and Zhejiang. But there will also be the Cantonese favourites of dim sum and roast meats.
Of course, we must have the traditional lion dance to kick off the grand opening and add festive atmosphere.
The restaurant itself is large (easily seating 400) but not in a crowded, anonymous banquet-style manner. Tastefully done, I must say.
This is one of the three private dining rooms. It's got a partial view of the outdoor patio from the floor-to-ceiling window on the left side.
Another simple but elegant dining area sectioned off from the main dining hall.
There are long tables too, to cater to large groups.
Look at how much space is between the tables. This is deliberately planned so that diners can have privacy. For business talks or romantic dinners, that would be paramount.
But let's go outside and take a look at the view!
The spacious outdoor patio (4,000 sq feet) is poetically named Flower Rain Terrace. It boasts a spectacular view facing the Ferry Building and Bay Bridge.
What a great place to mingle with the beautiful Bay Lights by Leo Villareal in the background.
Crystal Jade COO James Quek, Consul-General Chris Cheang and wife (I believe), restaurant partner Gus Murad
On the other end of the patio, you'll see the bar which also shares the same view.
The Liu Ling bar and lounge serves wine and spirits along with bar snacks in a chic environment. It has a decidedly different feel from the restaurant, with more Western touches.
There's a luxurious VIP room nestled behind the bar area, with eclectic custom-made furniture. It feels like someone's home, a great place for respite.
Posh furnishings and Chinoiserie wallpaper in this quiet hideaway.
Guests enjoyed visiting the VIP room.
The attention to detail is incredible. They even hand-painted the white electrical socket plates to match the wallpaper.
The 4,500 sq feet brand new kitchen itself is larger than most restaurants in San Francisco. Certainly worthy of showcase windows. It actually has entire rooms dedicated to different functions - dim sum preparation, apple wood roasting ovens, beverage service, etc.
And oh, what lovely food comes out of there.
For the grand opening night, it was mostly finger food. I was at first unsure whether to take any photos of these; as you know, at most events, canapes tend to be pretty forgettable. But oh man, these bite-size morsels were so unusually delicious, they stopped me in mid-conversation.
"Why is the food better here than in Singapore?" was my first question. And this is just party food, but already it's so very good. How is that possible? Well, the explanation is simple - the produce in California is way fresher and more varied or superior. It just beats most of the stuff we get flown or trucked into Singapore.
After a while, I just I parked myself near the kitchen to capture them as they emerged. Folks, if you need catering in San Francisco, CJ is your go-to guy.
Deep-fried Spring Rolls with Fresh Local Vegetables
And what a difference fresh local vegetables make! The natural vegetal sweetness seems amplified. CJ uses a lot of organic produce in its food here.
Roasted Crispy Pork Belly Marinated in 9 Spices
Oh lord, these are sublime. Perfectly crisp and brittle crackling atop moist tender meat. So addictive you will follow the waiter for more. It's good pork, like most of their meats - chemical/antibiotic/hormone-free.
Wild Gulf Prawns with Beijing style sauce
Big, plump, juicy prawns. The seafood is largely wild caught and not from farms. Even the prawns they source are the ones still in the shell, because the de-shelled variety come with chemicals to prolong their shelf life. The prawns in shell are more expensive and require time and labour to shell, but Mr Ip is very particular about not having additives in the food.
Deep-fried Eggplant and Yam with 7 Spices
I had no idea what these were when I first popped them into my mouth, but I had to find out. Cubes of soft eggplant with a lightly crisp exterior, cushioned by yam, all dusted with spicy seasoning. Awesome.
Steamed Shrimp Dumplings (Har Kau)
What a sweet army of shrimp dumplings. You can see the pink of the shrimp from the translucent skins, beckoning like a Chinese beauty wrapped in silk.
Steamed Pork Dumpling with Mushrooms (Siu Mai)
These were decent, served hot from the steamers, but very filling. For all their dim sum, there is no MSG and they use rice bran oil (zero cholesterol).
Pan-fried Seaweed and Vegetable Medley Wrapped in Beancurd Skin
Another dim sum staple - the Fu Pei Guen (腐皮卷) or Beancurd Skin Rolls - also majorly addictive. The generous amounts of seaweed made it a little gummy but still presented a nice contrast to the crinkly beancurd sheets.
And the highlight of the evening - apple wood roasted Peking duck! Not even Crystal Jade in Singapore or Asia does the apple wood roasting. And the ducks here are specially sourced; the meat is extra tender and moist. Most of the poultry is free-range too.
Happiness is Peking duck served! These servers were very patient with the guests who kept coming back for more. There is no way you can stop at just one. Really.
Well, that was the awesome opening night. What a buzz we all had as we left.
Jaime Ee (Business Times) and I had lunch with Mr Ip, James Quek and Gus Murad the next day in the private dining room, where we could sample the signature dishes from CJ Jiang Nan.
Steamed Kurobuta Xiao Long Bao (US$9 for 4 pieces)
Probably one of the best xiao long bao I've had (yes, way better than that specialty chain). The delicate skin is artfully pleated (no hard lump on top) and hold a good amount of broth (it filled my whole soup spoon). I felt the seasoning was just nice, not too salty or overwhelming. The Kurobuta lent melty tenderness to the texture.
Chilean Sea Bass or Cod with Honey and Ginger Sauce (US$25 per portion)
This blew me away. How pillowy soft the roasted cod was, with that unmistakable sweetness of the sea that only fresh fish can yield. And how beautifully caramelised too, brushed with just the right amount of honey (not too cloying).
Apple Wood Roasted Peking Duck (whole US$55; half US$30; 3 pieces US$17)
Awesomeness, round two! There's nothing as too much Peking duck. Oh from the apple wood roasting oven, they also have roasted duck with 9 spices, and roasted suckling pig.
What makes the Peking duck really good too, is the house made dough wrapper - deliciously chewy and soft! So unlike the dry crepe-y afterthought that comes in most Cantonese restaurants. The housemade sauce also complements the duck well; it just tastes natural.
Mary's Chicken Breast Served Chilled with Spicy CJ Sauce (US$12 per portion)
CJ Jiang Nan proudly sources its chicken from the famous Mary's free-range farm in San Joaquin Valley. The spicy sauce does deliver a strong kick. I love it that they have not toned down the spiciness. They might have to, in future. But I hope they keep an original spicy version for guests who request it! Note: This may not be the full portion.
New England Scallops with Organic Vegetables
This staple stir-fry of scallops and vegetables (snow peas, carrots, shiitake and shimeji mushrooms and fresh ginger) when done right is such a comforting dish. I don't see this on the menu, but there is a similar Fresh Scallop with Macadamia Nut (US$19 per portion) that's similar.
Sauteed Angus Beef Tenderloin Cubes (US$19 per portion)
Another epiphany arrived in the form of these expertly flash-fried cubes. Thankfully Crystal Jade doesn't resort to any of the horrid baking soda tenderizer that so plagues Chinese restaurants. Mr Ip insists, "That is not how you make meat tender. You fry it just right. These are not even marinated, they are just sauteed with salt and butter."
This is almost like fantastic teppanyaki. Each bite is beefy goodness that leaves you with your eyes towards heaven, sighing in pleasure. Who knew tenderloin could be so exquisite?
Poached Rainbow Cauliflower and Assorted Vegetables in Superior Broth (US$16 per portion)
A testament to the colourful bounty that California is brimming with. Mr Ip created this dish for the restaurant here; he has always liked to come up with interesting and healthy dishes, even in Singapore. So here we have rainbow cauliflower, organic vegetables, organic tofu, cloud ear mushrooms, carrot, beetroot and broccoli separately cooked and then lightly poached in a stock infused with Virginia ham (a vegetarian version is available, using vegetable stock). It makes you feel good even as you eat it.
The ginkgo nuts here are fresh from the shell, and manually pitted. Mr Ip says the ready-to-use canned ones may be convenient but contain chemical additives and taste different.
Steamed Fresh Scallop Gulf Wild Shrimp Dumpling (US$12.50 for 3 pieces)
Supersized scallop and shrimp dumplings! This is my dream dim sum item, and someone has finally made it. One full scallop and big shrimp wrapped in translucent har gau skin. Might seem pricey for us, but given the quality of ingredients, it's worth the splurge. Most of their other dim sum items start from US$5.50.
Chilled Fresh Organic Pomegranate Jelly with Red Wine Marinated Local Fruits (US$7 per portion)
Another creation by Mr Ip. Originally they wanted to try a red wine jelly, but chose to reverse it instead with a pomegrantate jelly and have the wine in the fruits instead. The pomegranate's deep red resembles wine, and it's rich with antioxidants.
We talked a bit about the tipping practice in the US. More restaurants are moving towards a fixed service charge, instead of just a tip. The tip goes to the server, but not the kitchen staff and others who have helped to make the whole experience pleasant and possible. With the service charge, everyone gets a fair share. You can still tip the server extra if you really are impressed with their service. Crystal Jade in San Francisco has a 15% service charge.
The San Francisco restaurant has been even more amazing that I imagined. From the opulent but not overwrought decor, this place is set to impress. This is what the patio looks like in the day. I love this space.
This is the double storey facade of Crystal Jade Jiang Nan near the intersection of Drumm and Sacramento Streets. It stretches the entire length of the building to the other end where the patio faces San Francisco Bay.
Crystal Jade is a familiar brand in Asia with more than 120 outlets across nine countries in Asia. Hopefully, in the US, it will be the champion for authentic Chinese cuisine. Til today there hasn't been a fine dining Chinese restaurant in San Francisco that serves the real deal; many Chinese restaurants either serve fancy fusion stuff or bastardised dishes, or are such dingy places with questionable hygiene standards. Finally there is a respectable destination for good Chinese food.
Mr Ip said, "It has been my dream to bring Chinese cuisine to the world. It's easy to build an average restaurant, but that's not what we want to do. Consistency is key, so we will have to find and train the right chefs and service staff."
Any restaurant is bound to have teething problems upon opening, but if opening night was anything to go by, they are off on a good start.
San Francisco is a costly and competitive place for restaurants. Ultra-savvy customers will demand the very best. James Quek says, "We are committed to world class quality, nothing less; you can't fool anyone here. We need to build customer and community relationships, and a strong word-of-mouth reputation.”
The US$14 million is a huge investment indeed, and perhaps appropriate to make a big splash on the scene. Will there be more outlets to come?
"This first restaurant in San Francisco has to set the standard that others will know us by. It’s important to get it right,” says James.
It looks like they know what to do. But will Americans take to real Chinese food, or will they find it too different from what they are used to? Those who have traveled to Asia will probably embrace this. The rest, we'll have to see. I sincerely hope the restaurant will not have to tweak its menu too much. The food is great as it is.
CJ JIANG NAN
4 Embarcadero Center
San Francisco, CA 94111
Tel: +1 415-399-1400
If you'd like to have a look at the menus, this website has some pdfs you can download.
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