Reading various articles on Yu’s Family Kitchen and how its owner/chef Yu Bo is one of the best chefs in China, has sparked my interest in visiting this restaurant.
I made a reservation for two a few days in advance, the lady on the phone informed me that since they only have 6 private rooms with 12 seating each room, my companion and I have to pay a higher price because we are occupying a room that is designed to fit more people. Also there is no menu provided because the chef will cook based on the price and the availability of seasonal produce. I agreed to their policies and appreciated that they were clearly laid out before I made the reservation, and now I eagerly anticipate the dinner at Yu’s Family Kitchen.
Yu’s Family Kitchen is located in the Kuanzhai (meaning wide and narrow) Alleys district – a historic quarter where the rich and powerful built their homes when China was ruled by Emperors. The Kuan (wide) alleys were strolled by the rich while the poor were only allowed on the Zhai (narrow) alleys. Today the old mansions are transformed into shops and restaurants while tourists and hawkers filled the passageways regardless of the width of the alleys.
Standing in front of the Yu’s Family Kitchen – what looks like an ancient Chinese courtyard house (Siheyuan) that epitomizes traditional Chinese architecture, I press a modern device – the doorbell, but no one answers, so I press it again a few more times. After a while, someone finally opens the door, and I recognize him from my research that it is Chef Yu Bo himself.
In my usual style, I pretend that I have no idea who he is, he welcomes my companion and I into a hall which leads to a courtyard, then tells us to go upstairs. We pass by a few private rooms filled with diners, and then we are lost. Not sure where our dining room is, I look down at the courtyard, and Chef Yu Bo is watching us and searching for our waitress with slight irritation. At this time, a waitress rushes out from another dining room and takes us to our room at the end of the hallway.
The waitress is very polite and apologetic, and when she turns on the light in the room, our cold dishes have already been presented on the table. It looks beautiful until I notice the tiny gnats (tolerable, these are fruit files not the real disgusting flies) surrounding them. “It’s the season, it has been really humid, it rained yesterday and we kept the windows open. I will bring some incense to get rid of the fruit flies.” The waitress tells us regretfully.
I take a good look at this spacious private dining room: it is decorated with classic Chinese furniture and water ink paintings; the large round dining table only occupies one third of the room and on the other side there is a classic bookshelf filled with culinary books, which makes the room comfortable. I feel relaxed as if I am eating right at home.
A younger waitress enters the room and begins to explain to us the many cold plates on the table while placing them into small groups of four. These small plates include: Fragrant Stewed Lotus Root, Mustard Celery, Bitter Melon in Sesame Oil, Honey Sweetened Cherry Tomatoes, Chili Oil Preserved Quail Eggs, just to name a few. She recommends us to consume it in the way she organizes them so our palates can balance the different flavors such as spicy, sweet, bitter and sour.
Dry Mixed Free-range Chicken, a cold dish displayed along with other cold appetizers
These would have been real fun for me to devour but the gnats are literally everywhere in and on the dishes to a point it is ridiculous to eat. Both waitresses come into the room when I tell them I cannot go on eating in this condition. Since all private rooms are full we cannot change rooms, so I suggest that we open the window. One of the waitresses opens the window while another one tries to swat away the gnats. In the midst of it all, a cat strolls in from the balcony, walks arrogantly across the room and exits the front door. Can this experience get any worse?
But with every mistake is an opportunity to showcase great customer service. The waitresses decide to close the windows, place burning incense on our dining table and dim the lights in the room. Then they replace all the cold dishes with new ones while trying their best to serve us, their evident effort has eased my dissatisfaction and so resumes the tasting with 18 more courses to go!
The 18 warm courses presented will take you on a stimulating culinary ride from the lavish Shark-Fin Soup and Abalone to the humble Year Rice Cake, Zhong Dumplings and Steam Eggs with Minced Pork; from the traditional Soft-Shelled Turtle to the exotic Alligator; then dishes such as Black Garlic, Pan-fried Egg with Black Truffle and Gold Foil, Fried Ginseng with Powder Sugar are served to remind you of the times we currently live in.
Soft Shelled Turtle
Soft Shelled Turtle close-up
Year Rice Cake
Crispy prawn in Fish Sauce
Steam Eggs with Minced Pork
That is a lot of flavors to take in for one meal and it clearly showcases chef Yu Bo’s well-versed knowledge not only in Sichuan but diverse cuisines. Take the shark-fin soup and abalone for example; although they are well known ingredients in Cantonese cuisine especially in cities like Hong Kong, which is located on the shorelines where seafood is plentiful, it is rare to find them in the Sichuan basin until recent years. No wonder it’s difficult to trace the Sichuanese in these dishes, but nonetheless they are delicious.
Shark Fin Soup
Some of the dishes are captivating and executed with a modern twist: The Black Garlic is soft and sweet, which tastes more like a fruit than garlic; the Fried Ginseng with Powder Sugar is like eating crispy fried dough, with none of the ginseng root texture, nor the distinctive ginseng taste you would have anticipated. These dishes remind me of molecular gastronomy cuisine where the basic characteristics and textures in food are altered to create unexpected amazing flavors.
Pan-fried Egg with Black Truffle and Gold Foil
Fried Ginseng with Powder Sugar
While the menu changes based on the availability of seasonal produce, you can almost be certain that Chef Yu Bo’s signature creation – Crispy Calligraphy Brushes, will be a staple on the menu. Chef Yu Bo’s edible calligraphy brushes are presented in traditional Chinese blue porcelain pen cup and stand, served with an ink plate, but obviously the ink is replaced by a dipping sauce that is made of tomatoes. I dip the calligraphy brush into the tomato sauce, then take my first bite. The outside texture is that of shortbread, the inside is filled with shredded dry meat floss, the flavors are sweet, salty and sour, what a familiar yet appetizing combination! Eating meat floss with rice, congee, and bread is a very common tradition in Sichuan, but this presentation infuses culture, history, aesthetic and fun into an otherwise common dish, this is creativity I rarely experience with chefs in China.
China’s rich food culture and history were temporarily disrupted during the Culture Revolution years in which creativity and individualism were punished; literature, mannerism and traditions were abolished. The country experienced widespread famine and poverty until the late eighties when new political policies lead China into an intensely rapid economic boom. With improved living standards comes new social problems. In the food industry, quality and food safety are often disregarded under the mentality of making quick money, desperately.
However, Chef Yu Bo appears to be running a different kind of restaurant amidst all the chaos. His food is delicately sourced, prepared with much attention and pride, and he has not cashed in on his success by expanding his business rapidly. Also this is the first restaurant in China I have dined in where the waitresses seem to have true knowledge in what they are serving. One of the waitresses told me she has been working for Chef Yu Bo for many years and has traveled overseas with him to meet international chefs to exchange ideas.
With none of the sumptuous extravagance that you find in most high-end restaurants in China today, Yu’s Family Kitchen is showcasing a new level of sophistication in the Chinese culinary stage. Perhaps I am wrong to use the word “new” because the intricacy and integrity has always been a part of Chinese culinary culture, but it was lost and we need more chefs like Yu Bo to bring them back again.
Yu’s Family Kitchen (喻家厨房)
Tongren lu Zhai Xiangzi No. 43. Chengdu, Sichuan.
Reservation is required