After all I'd heard about Jai Yun, dubbed the Chinese equivalent to the French Laundry, I expected to enter off a dark Chinatown alley and be escorted to a dingy basement decorated only by Christmas lights and a few out-of-date calendars. The decor was not far removed from my imagination (there was, indeed, an abundance of stringed lights), but the locale was above ground, on a main (if residential) street, with a facade like any ordinary low-rent Chinese pick-up joint. But Jai Yun is far from ordinary.
For starters, you must make a reservation — drop-ins not welcome. This might not strike you as unusual in a town where reservations are de rigeur at any number of restaurants. It's not that Jai Yun necessarily fills up every night (there were only three parties — including us — the night that we dined), but rather that the chef only shops for who's coming. Which brings up the next oddity — there is no menu. Rather, the chef shops daily for fresh ingredients and makes what he pleases. You choose ahead of time which menu you want ($45 up to $100, in $10 increments).
We picked the $55 menu and sat back for the feast that was to come. The cold dishes came in waves of three, including delicately marinated tofu skins, thin-sliced roast beef with a hint of caramelized glaze, impeccably diced mushroom salad, salt-rubbed cubes of fried fish, and the thinnest julienne you've ever seen on a cucumber. Each of these courses was a small portion — a few bites when divvied between the three of us — but a universe of flavor and texture at once different from its take-out cousin and its haute cuisine parent.
After a slight pause in the onslaught of cold dishes — nine in all — the hot dishes started arriving. They ranged from merely ordinary fried shrimp cubes to a succulent bone-in pork roast whose fat tipped off the length of its preparation. Also note worthy was a thinly sliced abalone dish, prepared ham'n'eggs style with ever-so-slightly slippery egg whites, a deconstructed green tomato topped with chinese sausage gravy, and a shark's fin salad, ten "hot" courses all told.
The spice was always in check, but seemed to wax to a deliciously fiery crescendo two courses from the end before easing off at the end. Likewise the thread of fullness, almost as if the last dishes were designed to potential discomfort. That this took place over the course of three hours might have had something to do with that, too.
Chinese cuisine is often best described in terms of yin and yang. Yin, the cool and ethereal high notes, and yang, the muscular, earthy, and often spicy base notes; the chef's role to bring them in harmony with one another. The pattern was evident not only in the interplay of courses — spicy dishes followed by cooling ones, but also in rhythm of service itself — a torrent of food was followed by the time to savor it and talk before the next wave.
Jai Yun also allows you to bring your own wine, which I had prepared for in advance and was very excited about. As fate would have it, though, I rushed out the door without the bottles. Next time? There probably won't be one for now, as we prepare for our excursion abroad, we are trying to allocate out our limited time to the must-tries (Jai Yun happily checked off) and the must-returns (which are too many to number!).