M.Y. China, the new upscale Chinese restaurant from Martin Yan, faces two obstacles that may prove insurmountable. The first is its location, on the fourth floor of Westfield San Francisco Centre, which means you must traverse several levels of the frenetic mall to reach it, and depending on where you're seated, the smell of buttered popcorn from the movie theater next door may be an uninvited guest at your table.
The second obstacle facing the restaurant is its high prices — higher even than upscale dim sum spot Yank Sing — and it's hard to justify paying a fine dining premium for cuisine you could get a few blocks away in Chinatown. Therein lies the rub: The dishes at M.Y. China are mostly well-executed versions of standard Chinese restaurant fare, and though they offer the occasional pleasant surprise, the food never quite flies high enough to transcend the odds against it.
Despite all the challenges, there are crowds in the restaurant just the same, partially because of the draw of Martin Yan. He's a celebrity chef of the PBS variety, and has been cooking Chinese food on television since before the Food Network was a twinkle in an executive's eye. With his TV series and two dozen cookbooks, Yan's made a career of bringing Chinese specialties to the masses, and has opened his first full-fledged San Francisco restaurant with the goal of reinterpreting authentic Chinese food for a modern audience.
The restaurant's signature is hand-pulled noodles. Yan brought in noodle ace Tony Wu to make them, and you can watch his noodle-making theatrics in the open kitchen. Occasionally Wu even comes out in the dining room for a floor show, wielding his rope of noodles like a cowboy wields a lasso. All the attention pays off: One of the best dishes on the menu is the wild boar scissor cut noodles, so named because the chefs use scissors to shear off short lengths of dough from a ball. The resulting noodles have just the right amount of chew — not tough, but with some texture — and are wok-tossed with generous slices of smoky wild boar meat.
Noodles are also scene-stealers in the beef noodle soup, where fat circular noodles are cooked to a perfect al dente, retaining their integrity even sitting in the velvety beef broth, which is redolent of cinnamon and star anise. The soup comes adorned with baby bok choy and large hunks of tender rib eye, and was a rich and satisfying meal on its own.
Besides noodles, the other signature dish at M.Y. China is the dim sum. There's been lots of early, critical chatter concerning the soup dumplings, in part because their most expensive iteration, pork and truffle juicy dumplings, costs an astronomical $18 for five. The truffle flavor is barely discernible, and the dumplings are served in soup spoons in a bamboo steamer — an elegant presentation, but the spoons were too hot to pick up at first, and tended to stick to the dumplings' too-thick wrappers, making them even more difficult to eat than usual.
Presentation works better in the elegant kung pao Dungeness crab. It's an investment (on our visit, $42), but worth it if you can swing it. The crab is deep-fried in a salty batter and served in a nest of fragrant wok-seared hot peppers and peanuts. The crab's carapace is burnished to a deep rust hue and sits atop the artfully arranged stack for a very opulent visual.
The room itself is well-designed, too, all sleek and contemporary with lots of black wood and accents like Buddha statues, a snuff bottle collection, and a 1,800-pound bell rescued from a Chinese monastery. The best seats in the house are along the open kitchen, where you can watch the noodle-pulling and the chefs busy with woks — the rest of the restaurant is open to the mall, an odd choice because you never quite leave the world of Westfield behind. Some of the tables are practically on the concourse, where you do have a view of the building's original Beaux Arts dome ... and the Vans store.
Over several meals and dishes, there were only a few missteps. Sticky rice is made here with multigrain instead of the usual short-grain version, and doesn't quite cohere as the best dim sum versions do. Roast chicken has a fragrant marinade but was almost too salty to eat, and plated with a little trail of five spice meant for dipping the chicken into, but add too much and you completely overwhelm your palate.
Some items were good but not enough to justify the price, like a beautiful rendition of pea shoots. They were fresh and garlicky and perfectly seasoned, but $16 seemed like an awful lot to pay for a vegetable side.
The most interesting dish we tried was a purple yam croquette for dessert. A cylinder of creamy, semisweet yam, coated in glazed almond slices, had a molten white chocolate center, and was served with a side of almond ice cream. It had a beautiful interplay of textures, and the flavor was earthy and just sweet enough — most of all, it seemed to live up to the promise of elevated Chinese food. I just wish the rest of the menu challenged my expectations in the same way it challenged my wallet.