Shanghai Surprise (Jai Yun -- San Francisco, CA)
Chef Chia-Ji Nei isn't from Shanghai, he's from Nanjing, but it's pretty damn close, hence the title.
His restaurant, Jai Yun is in Chinatown, in a little non-descript hole in the wall. Getting there is half the battle, but once you do, you'll be glad you did.
First, you need to call for a reservation. They are open for lunch and dinner Fri. - Wed. The restaurant is run by Chef Nei, his wife and his son. And that's the entire staff. They all speak very little English, so count on your reservation taking about twenty minutes to make and resembling the drive through scene in "Dude, Where's My Car?". Then when you arrive at the restaurant, count on them not really being sure if you are on the books. But it's all good, I promise.
It's a pretty small dining room, seats about 30 peeps, total. Decor consists of some Christmas lights, a calendar and a drink cooler. You get handed a menu. This is not a menu with food on it, however. That wouldn't make any sense. It is a menu that explains the chef's heritage and philosophy. You then tell the server (his son) how much you want to pay ranging from $35-$150 (cash only). We've never done more than $45 and with what you get, I can't imagine what the $150 meal looks like. They must need a stretcher to get you out. After you tell them how much you want to pay, the food starts coming. And coming. And coming.
You start with some cold bits. These include but are not limited to: a delicate little cucumber salad, vegetarian chicken (cold layered tofu that really *does* taste like chicken), lotus root salad, cold duck tasties, braised beef slices with spicy peanuts, cold fish, spicy cabbage and many, many more. Then the entrees start coming.
One of his signature dishes is foo yung abalone. This is egg whites and abalone and it's fucking delicious. You just can't believe it. Then comes shrimpies with veggies and gingko nuts and then some tofu noodles with edamame and more veggies and it's crazy good. Crispy spicy beef and crispy spicy mushrooms. Winter melon with finely minced pork in another spicy sauce. Pig's leg. Chinese sausage with sticky, chewy delicious noodles (I have no idea what they are made of, but who cares? They are amazing). Whole fish with citrus and herbs. And more and more and more and more and more and more. And the fucked up thing? It's all so friggin' good that as each dish comes, you can't possibly believe it's better than the last, but it is.
They send out the perfect amount of each dish for the number of people in your party. And by the end of the night, all the tables are somewhat in sync, receiving many of the same dishes and leaning over to each other to say "oh-my-God-can-you-believe-how-fucking-good-this-is?"
The crazy thing is that we've never been there when it's been full. This place should be filled to capacity all the time. It's extraordinary. The food is so unique and so tasty that there should be blood in the streets from people fighting each other to get in. But hey, I don't mind -- more room for me.
Get your ass there, because like Cafe Jaqueline, this an experience that is so specific and rare that you need to take advantage of it while you can. Chef Nei is the restaurant, plain and simple. When he decides to call it quits, you will not be able to find another thing like it. And that's what makes it so great. He is kind, he is gracious, he is humble. He is special (and by that I mean rare and wonderful, not mentally challenged).
We've been there twice. Each time, Jon and I went to thank Chef Nei for the incredible meal. Each time, he, smiling from ear to ear, came out from the kitchen into the dining room. Each time, the entire dining room erupted into applause. Now that's fucking good food.
"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."