If you can believe it, about seven years have slipped by since chef Brandon Jew first opened the doors to his now legendary restaurant Mister Jiu’s. And in the years since spring 2016, a lot has changed. These days, Jew is not just the culinary mastermind behind the Michelin-starred Chinatown restaurant, but also the proprietor of Moongate Lounge, a cocktail lounge upstairs, and the driving force behind a growing empire of fast-casual Chinese American restaurants. He authored a James Beard-award-winning cookbook and got named Best Chef in the state by the same organization just last year. He also became a dad.
Which is all to say, it kind of makes sense Jew felt it was time to make some changes to his genre-defining restaurant. “The expectations for us are so high,” he says, explaining that on top of all the developments to his business empire and in his personal life, he’s also working against the familiar chorus of issues that make owning a restaurant challenging in these times: Inflation has driven up the price of ingredients. Customer behavior has fundamentally shifted since the onset of COVID-19. San Francisco is, simply put, a different place than it was back then.
Looking to the future, Jew says he sought to figure out how he and his team could continue to deliver to diners' expectations, while also accounting for all those environmental changes.
Prior to closing down the restaurant earlier this year, Jew says he often found himself cooking curated menus for friends, family, and VIPs. Rather than having guests order off the restaurant’s a la carte menu, he’d hand-select what dishes he was most excited for them to try and would pair them with appropriately complementary plates. The more he thought about it, Jew says, the more he realized this style of dining made more sense. “I just felt like we should just be doing that,” he says, “and I haven’t felt absolutely capable of doing that before.”
So, as of this month, Mister Jiu’s has ditched its a la carte menu (except at the bar) in favor of a new five-course tasting menu. On top of those set courses, diners have the choice to add on a banquet-style entree, for example, the restaurant’s iconic Liberty Farms whole-roasted duck, a whole fish scented with ginger and scallions, or, for the springtime, a half rabbit. For Jew, this sharable aspect of the dining experience was crucial to retain. “I want there to be a communal aspect to the meal,” he says. “I think it’s important for Chinese food. There are so many things that must be large-format.”
There are other benefits to the change, too. Creatively, Jew says the smaller menu allows him and the team to elevate the level of attention to detail required to execute each dish. With dozens of plates on the previous a la carte menu, Jew says it would have been impractical to offer something like the gorgeous, giant dumpling on the menu now, which gets adorned with delicate Tokyo radishes and tender microgreens. On a more operational level, the streamlined menu also means less food waste; since diners can select their shared entree while making their reservation on Tock, the kitchen knows exactly how many ducks or rabbits or whole fish to purchase and prep well before the night’s service begins.
The tasting menu will rotate seasonally, and Jew says he’s challenging himself to continue pushing the boundaries of what Chinese American cuisine can be. “I feel really empowered by this building and what happened here before us,” he says. With one course, he’s throwing it back to one of his favorite childhood dishes, honey walnut prawns, but using Alexandre Dairy milk to make the condensed milk used in the dish and pairing it with buckwheat honey. He’s also putting forward plates to take inspiration more from Northern California’s produce; the current first course stars thin sheets of kohlrabi draped over clams and dusted with a housemade powder of fermented mustard greens.
The restaurant got some subtle physical upgrades, as well. All the lighting has been replaced and, to accompany an amped-up new sound system, the team added new soundproofing throughout the dining room and bar. Jew also made some key changes to the kitchen: There’s now a larger Cantonese-style wok better suited for cooking the fried rice on the a la carte bar menu and there’s also a proper, old-school steam table for the cheong fun. Just a few weeks into using the new equipment, Jew says he can already taste the difference in the food.
Mostly, Jew says all these changes serve to ensure he’ll be able to sustain operating a high-end Chinese restaurant, while also balancing the additional responsibilities he’s taken on since Mister Jiu’s debuted. “I feel like this is a way for me to have this restaurant last potentially longer,” Jew says. “For me, that was more important.”