On a side alley in the heart of Chinatown, Mister Jiu’s recalls the Chinese traditions that made the original Four Seas restaurant (the former occupant of the space) a neighborhood gem: iconic lotus light fixtures still hang over lazy Susan tables in the main restaurant, while an open kitchen invites diners to watch as chefs prepare Peking duck, sea urchin cheong fun, and sizzling rice soup. Upstairs, the team’s brand-new spot, Moongate Lounge, is a cocktail den from another dimension—futuristic but rooted in Chinese banquet hall culture, with crushed red velvet booths with blue speckled marble tables, a central circular sky light, and neon recessed lighting throughout.
The man behind it all, chef-owner Brandon Jew, who spent the better part of his culinary career cooking Italian and French fare at La Pernice e la Gallina in Bologna followed by stints at Zuni Cafe and Quince, explains the thought behind Mister Jiu’s offerings: “There’s this long history of Chinese banquets and what’s served on certain holidays,” says the chef. “One of the things that we’re trying to build a menu around is a Red Egg and Ginger Party,” the chef says, referring to an event celebrating two-year olds’ birthdays that he remembers going to at Four Seas when he was a kid. He recalls: “There was this big celebration that involved a suckling pig, [dyeing] eggs red, and all your friends and family [giving] you red envelopes and a bunch of jewelry.”
At Moongate, too, the menu speaks to chef Jew’s childhood. Take the Banquet Style Half Chicken, for example: “It was actually a recipe that I got from my grandpa,” says chef Jew. “He saved a cut out from the [San Francisco] Chronicle of the Four Seas fried chicken, I couldn’t believe that he actually saved it and knew where it was. So, when I took over this space, he gave me the recipe.” According to the chef, the time-honored recipe is based in the technique that makes the chicken extra-crispy: “You salt it, then blanch it, and once [you] pull it out, you baste it.” By quickly submerging the chicken into boiling water, you open the pores of the skin, to better-absorb the marinade.
Though the recipe is rooted in heritage, it’s not without Jew’s secret sauce: the chef has made a few adjustments for quality, including substituting sweet potato vinegar for red wine vinegar and using brown rice syrup instead of maltose. Once the chicken is basted, it’s hung in the walk-in [refrigerator] for two days to dry completely before it’s fried. The end result is ultra-crispy skin and a juicy, flavorful interior.
The techniques employed in both establishments have been honed over decades: “There are all these secrets,” says Jew. “That’s been part of what I think has [slowed] a lot of Chinese food progression.” The chef has taken on the task of gathering traditional Chinese techniques and recipes through his travels throughout China, because (says Jew), “in order for the cuisine to grow, we have to share this knowledge with each other and share it with the next generation or we risk losing it completely.”
Because Chinese culinary traditions are often passed down and only verbalized in passing, there’s a unique challenge with their preservation: “These flavors, techniques…these dishes, recipes, stories—all of it starts to get lost, and I think that’s the true fear, and the reason I opened Mister Jiu’s,” says Jew. Through making his own ingredients, chef Jew has preserved the intent of the original recipes, while sourcing local ingredients and making them his own.
The chef’s devotion to honoring—and modernizing—Chinese traditions starts with the preparation of the dishes, but is reflected in the respective cocktail programs and even small design details. At Moongate Lounge, the swanky den’s seasonal cocktail program is inspired by a mural in the space that was painted in the 1940s. The picture depicts an elegantly dressed woman and a man playing a flute: “she’s holding a white peach, which is to symbolize prosperity and longevity,” says Jew. Originally, chef Jew thought the female figure was depicting the moon goddess, hence the name Moongate Lounge.
Drinks like Awakening Insects—with pisco, coffee, grand poppy, mint, and hazelnut milk—are inspired by the Chinese lunar agrarian calendar. “There are six cocktails that are always on our menu. And then there are six cocktails that change depending on the season,” explains Jew. And to accompany the Lounge’s cocktail menu, small bites, called Xiao Xiao (literally small small), draw on chef Jew’s time cooking in Shanghai: “One of my favorite street foods when I lived in Shanghai was Xinjiang lamb skewers,” says Jew. Circling back to his emphasis on quality sourcing, he explains: “We have a binchotan grill, and we grill lamb skewers [cut from] whole lambs from Watson.” They use the entire lamb, marinating, and skewering before they grill the unctuous meat over charcoal, “and then it gets that really addictive spice mix of cumin and Sichuan peppercorn,” he says enthusiastically. Dim sum-inspired small bites, like Chicken in a Spacesuit, fill out a more experimental menu. But there are also plenty of classic Chinese bites, like the football-shaped Ham Sui Gok, a crispy fried glutinous rice dumpling with a mochi-textured center, and the salt and pepper squid.
The delicate balance of tradition and innovation is one that invites every generation to partake in Chinese heritage. And it’s this ethos, according to chef Jew’s partner and wife Anna Lee, has struck a chord with the neighborhood. One thing’s for sure, with a few weddings already under their belt, Mister Jiu’s and Moongate Lounge are a recipe for a good time. Gan bei.