The latest and, for me, most thrilling installment of “Find the Sichuan Chef” . . . Chef Zhongyi Liu has returned to the Bay Area! He soft-opened Royal Feast in Millbrae at the end of November.
Veteran chowhounds may recall Chef Liu’s reign at Albany’s China Village. He was the executive chef for Sichuan cuisine at Beijing's Grand Hotel and represented China in the Bocuse d'Or in 1999. From our first chowdown in January 2003 http://www.chowhound.com/post/1-chowd... through FeldmanFest in September 2004 http://www.chowhound.com/post/feldman... , I enjoyed more than two dozen meals during his tenure at China Village. Unknown to us at the time, the FeldmanFest banquet would be his last duty at China Village and he slipped away without taking a final bow. Informed that he had boarded a flight that night to China, I sank into into a deep funk. From time to time I’d do a web search to try to find him, and finally in 2008, discovered that he had not gone that far and owned Hunan Restaurant in Fresno, as recounted in this article, http://www.mercurynews.com/2008/10/23... . Some Fresno eating reports are linked here, http://www.chowhound.com/post/world-c... . I made several trips to Fresno and last visited Chef Liu there in late 2012. At that time he had sold his restaurant but continued to work there. Several dishes were problematic that night. He came out from the kitchen to apologize to me and the dishes were refired properly. He explained the issues with trying to cook authentic cuisine for a non-Chinese customer base and shared his frustrations. At that time he was considering job offers in China.
Fast forward to one month ago when a Chowhound alum notified me that Chef Liu had left Hunan Restaurant in Fresno in September. He allegedly returned to the Bay Area, but no clues as to where. I tracked him down to Millbrae and on December 8, I dropped into Royal Feast for a solo dinner. My intent was to slip in unannounced to have an anonymous first meal. However, with only one customer in the place, Chef Liu stepped out of the kitchen at one point and spotted me. What a happy reunion! He owns Royal Feast with a partner, Jian Wang. He explained that he wanted to ramp up slowly and asked me to wait on letting on that he was here until things were running more smoothly. He was still the sole kitchen crew and had not hired his staff yet. Since then, I’ve enjoyed a total of six meals here. Each time there have been more and more customers and it’s clear that the word-of-mouth is circulating locally. He started training kitchen assistants two weeks ago to be able to accommodate more business. And I told him that I thought his food was ready for prime time. Service is still a little rough but one can always speak to Mr. Wang who runs the front of the house for recommendations.
To kick-off, let me run through my favorites so far, the dishes that I recommend highly.
Dry Mixed Beef Tripe, $7.95. Cross-cut slices of honeycomb tripe offer a crisp bite laced with slivers of scallion. The red oil had more moderate heat than other dishes and a heady citrusy scent from the numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
Shredded Pork Ear, $7.95. Prepared terrine style then sliced, the crunch of the cartilage, well-judged salt and five-spice seasoning and tangy garlic condiment made this a stand-out.
Pork in Garlic Sauce, $7.95. Tender slabs of fatty poached pork belly rolled up around crisp slices of juicy cucumber were bathed in a slightly sweet, garlic-laden sauce.
Eggplant Salad. Velvety sections of sweet Asian eggplant, roast garlic cloves, cilantro and Thai bird chiles were dressed with a sesame-scented, lilting vinaigrette. Not on the menu, let's hope it will be soon, as it was the universal favorite of our meal.
Couple's Delight, $7.95. Shavings of tendon-streaked beef shank and beef tripe in a very hot red oil had more robust and deeper spice complexity.
Signature Pig Feet Jelly, $7.95. Completely deboned pig's feet spiced with star anise and molded with its own gelatin was napped with a garlicky topping.
Dry Mixed Beef Tendon, $7.95. Translucent shavings of firm, chewy tendon and scallions in a similar red chile and Sichuan peppercorn oil to the tripe dish but much more fiery.
Fish and Chinese Celery Pie, $8.95. Six per order, these xian bing are prepped fresh to order. Chewy and crisp pan-fried wheat flour pastry encases white fish chunks and pungent celery with all their natural juices.
Fish and Chinese Celery Dumplings, $8.95. Classic shui jiao (boiled dumplings) but so delicate and diaphanous, they almost melt in the mouth. They were just sublime served with the shreds of fresh ginger in the garlic-infused black vinegar dipping sauce.
Chongqing Spicy Chicken, $12.95. Available boneless or bone-in, I picked the bone-in version made with chopped sections of chicken wings. Lightly breaded, deep-fried and so succulent and juicy, these plump wings explode with full ma-la numbing fire power and garlic heat.
Braised Abalone with Four Delicacies (Fish Maw/Beef Tendon/Sea Cucumber & Quail Eggs), $35.95. Among the Tanjia dishes listed under "Aristocratic Cuisine" on the menu, these are available every day, not limited to advance orders. The thick stock is an ultra-concentrated reduction of huang mao ji (yellow feathered heritage chicken), chicken feet and pork bones. This dish was a fascinating study along the spectrum of chewy textures beginning with the more tender chew of the sweet abalone, the brittle chew of fish maw, the gummy chew of sea cucumber, and rising to the bouncy chew of cylinders of beef tendon, all infused with blessed Tanjia-style stock. Soft-boiled quail eggs were creamy orbs of richness studding the dish.
Dongpo Pork Belly. The most perfectly cooked piece of pork belly I've had in ages, steamed for hours to render the fat and convert the rind to jelly, retaining all the moisture and fork-tender softness of the bacon cut. I asked Chef Liu if he brought master sauce starter from his previous restaurant. He laughed and said he was beginning anew. In the months to come, this dish should be even deeper and more complex. Not on the menu, but the pork shank version is.
Steamed Napa Cabbage in Supreme Broth, $10.95. Crystalline clear chicken-based consomme with Napa cabbage steamed to the point of sweetness with wolf berries blew us away with its pure expression.
Szechuan Style Hot & Spicy Fish Fillet, $22.95. White fish fillets poached in intense chicken stock with bean threads, ginger and garlic blanketed with roasted red chile pods might look unbearably spicy but it's really not. The carpet of chiles only steeps for a short time and are skimmed off once presented at the table. Made with cut chiles, the imparted heat was a notch higher than past examples and I might ask for whole chiles next time for a slightly milder version.
Braised Fish Maw with Crab Meat, $28.95. A rather homely presentation but more of the delectable Tanjia stock, this time with fish maw and beautifully fresh and sweet snow crab meat.
Duck & Tofu in Beer Sauce, $18.95. Duck stewed on the bone in Tsing Tao beer was served with the piquant and slightly thickened braising liquids. The squares of custardy tofu provided a welcome blank contrast to the spicy saucing.
Sautéed Shredded Potato with Vinegar Gravy, $9.95. Perfect technique with firm waxy potatoes, scent of the wok, just enough oil, vinegar and salt, and colored with green and red bell peppers this made for a great palate cleanser for the spicier dishes.
Quick Fried Cabbage, $9.95. Such a simple dish demands perfect execution or it's just a bowl of cabbage mush. Not par-boiled here, the squares of green cabbage picked up the scent of the wok and char from steady stir-frying. Sweetened by the high heat treatment yet offering a fresh crunch and range of doneness, the hand of the master showed best in this dish.
Lastly Chef Liu and his partner, Jian Wang, posed for me after the first dinner. This is the only time he's not changed into a dress chef's coat for picture-taking. But perhaps this was the most appropriate time to appear as a working cook since every dish on this occasion was the product of his own hands.
148 El Camino Real
Sunday-Thursday 11am to 2:30pm, 5pm to 9:30pm
Friday & Saturday 11am to 2:30pm, 5pm to 10pm
One block from the Millbrae BART station