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Last week I dropped by Tēo Restaurant & Bar located in the Good Hotel at 7th and Mission, South of Market. Teo specializes in Teochew (aka Chiu Chow, Chao Chou, Chaozhou, Chinjew, Diojiu or Trieu Chau) cooking, often categorized as a subset of Cantonese cuisine due to the origin in eastern Guangdong province. (More about Teochew cuisine, http://www.chowhound.com/post/chow-ch... )
In soft opening since May 13, the hostess explained that the grand opening would be some time in mid-June. Unlike other Chinese restaurants, the menu is small and easily manageable at this phase to ensure consistency and quality. She said that the two main chefs brought over from China have been testing more than 100 traditional dishes to familiarize themselves with ingredients available here and picked the current menu selection from the most popular. All of the seating is two- and four-tops in the contemporary-styled main dining area. For meetings and banquets, the VIP Lounge can accommodate up to 35 at three round tables in a private room.
Complimentary housemade bites of traditional Teochew pickled mustard leaves and sugar-coated fried peanuts came to the table as soon as I sat down. When I asked the hostess about the chefs, I was invited to tour the kitchen. I decided to do that before settling down to order.
A counter with eight seats overlooks the open kitchen. This front kitchen handles the cold dishes and appetizers. No activity at that moment, but it’s designated for steaming, deep-frying and boiling.
More interesting was the steam chamber puffing away to make double-boiled soup, a specialty of the house. I made a mental note to be sure to taste them.
The back kitchen has three wok stations and more prep area. The kitchen was completely redone from the previous occupant and customized for Chinese cooking.
Wearing the tallest toque is Chef Zhang in the center of the group. He is the head chef, ethnic Teochew and newly arrived from China. On the left is Chef Kai, second in command, who hails from the Teochew part of China as well. Next to him toward the back is Chef Lee who is the main stir-fry and wok cook. He joined from Oakland's Peony Restaurant. And though he is very experienced in Chinese technique and Hong Kong-style cuisine, he has been on a learning curve to work with the unique Teochew flavors and ingredients at play at Teo.
Overcoming his protests that this platter was incomplete, i did get Zhang's permission to take this photo of the precise knifework of the garnish that would adorn the salted egg yolk Dungeness crab for a large group's banquet.
Returning to the food, first up, Assorted marinated meats Teo Chew style, $12: Chef’s choice of beef and pork cuts plus firm tofu marinated and served warm with some of the master sauce marinade and a garlicky white vinegar dipping sauce. I asked for some goose from another appetizer in my selection, which might have been a mistake. The thick pieces of skin-on poached goose were tough and sinewy, likely from the legs, and needed to be cut much thinner and across the grain. Good flavor though, and I will try the goose again but be more specific about the cut. Pork belly was 50:50 fat to meat and thoroughly delectable. Tofu was fine. Best bite of this platter was the velvety and well-trimmed beef tongue. I hope to get lucky again with tongue as the beef cut of the day.
Befriending the young family at the next table, I shared tastes with them, making it possible to try many more dishes than I would have as a solo diner such as these three different soups.
Teo Chew carrot soup, $7: Bright orange in color and sweet from barely cooked fresh carrot puree, this soup gained a briny depth charge from shreds of dried scallop.
Stewed chicken & tea mushroom soup, $9: Long-simmered huang mao ji (yellow feathered heritage chicken) cooked on the bone with dried tea mushrooms that impart an earthy, almost piney fluourish to the concentrated chicken stock. The chicken meat’s completely spent, having given its all to the broth and the rehydrated mushrooms were rather chewy, so best to skim off the liquid portion from the meat, bones, skin and fungi to enjoy on its own.
Fish stock soup, $8: Gelatin and complex flavors from fish heads and racks stewed for hours yielded a milky, emulsified broth base. Brightened with fresh ginger root, spinach leaves and shreds of bok choy stems, this was one of my favorites of the night.
Teo Chew corn pancake, $6: Sweet corn niblets bound with a very delicate and light crispiness perhaps from a rice flour batter. Have to eat this quickly while it’s warm as it turns soggy fast. The hostess said some save this for dessert instead of as an appetizer.
Chilean sea bass & pickled mustard green in clay pot, $25: Thick boneless batons of unctuous Chilean sea bass were lightly dusted and oil-blanched, then braised in clay pot in an intense fish fumet with crisp hearts of pickled mustard greens, cherry tomatoes, ginger, and pungent bulbs of Chinese leeks. This is Teo’s signature dish. The fresh seafood combination with pickled flavors is classic Teo Chew, however, my questions about sustainable sourcing of the fish could not be answered and I felt too guilty to enjoy this dish wholeheartedly or recommend it.
Teo Chew fried rice, $12: Dry style with bits of egg, lop cheong sausage, lean pork, lop yuk (Cantonese waxy bacon), scallions, black mushroom, and some filler carrots/peas/corn that I could have done without. Such an enticing fragrance of wok hei and the richness of pork fat coated the palate.
Hometown tofu with pork, $17: Seared rectangles of firm tofu stuffed with pork forcemeat were braised with caramelized, whole garlic cloves in a meaty reduction to soak up more porcine depth. Garnish of Chinese leeks and strips of red and green bell pepper added color accents to an otherwise drab-looking clay pot.
Teo Chew cold crab, $9.50: Roe and crab butter were abundant in this female blue crab. Somewhat overcooked, the meat was dry and cottony yet retained sweet flavor. Subtly seasoned Chinese red wine vinegar accompanied as a dipping sauce.
Teo Chew oyster pancake, $16.50: One of the day’s specials, and the best dish of the night despite its homely appearance. The thinner and crispy style of egg omelet featured juicy, tender, sweet chunks of fresh oyster, and a thin almost imperceptible layer of chewy tapioca with a dash of fish sauce. This was accompanied by red chilli paste, and additional fish sauce as a condiment is available on request. This was the best version I’ve had in years.
Sauteed squab, $18.00: Boneless squab meat coated with an aromatic glaze on a bed of fried vermicelli looked and smelled wonderful. But somehow I forgot to collect my taste.
Teo’s mochi, 4 pieces, $5.00: Pan frying added a light crust as a contrast to the tender yet satisfyingly chewy, sticky rice inside. Sprinkled with powdered peanuts, sesame seeds and granulated sugar, these left too heavy a slick of oil on the plate.
Ten Ren is the tea supplier. I ordered Ti Kuan Yin (Iron Goddess), $5 per pot, a favorite of the Teo Chew. However, it was not served in the thick and bitter gongfu style. I was told that the staff will be trained how to prepare the tea that way in the near future.
Currently wine and beer are the alcoholic beverages. I was pleased to see the preservation system for the wines by the glass. A cocktail program is in the works, created by Quenton Jay of Millbrae's Bacchus Wine, and will include housemade infusions of dong guai, five-spice and other Chinese herbs to pair with the cuisine. Mao tai will be served starting this month. Jay also selected the wine list. Corkage fee has not been decided yet but is expected to be around $12 per bottle.
Service was friendly and the servers seemed genuinely interested in feedback on the dishes. They surprised me by comping the meal. I did leave $40, all the cash I had on me, for the service staff.
The team plans to ramp up slowly to control quality and to begin to educate the public about Teochew cuisine. Open for dinner seven days a week currently, lunch service will begin by early July. A separate menu for the bar with more salty, fried items is available. Teo intends to add more fresh seafood soon as the customer base grows. Teo is off to a strong start with authentic Teochew flavors that are new to our area.
Tēo Restaurant & Bar
1111 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
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