Uncle Yu's at the Vineyard
Wine and Chinese food marry happily in Livermore
At Uncle Yu’s at the Vineyard, it is the racks of wine bottles forming a porous division between the lounge and the dining room that convey the restaurant’s guiding principal: good wine and plenty of it. You’ll also find plenty of good Szechuan food, but that message plays out more slowly.
Unlike its forebears, a restaurant launched in Lafayette by Daniel and Jennifer Yu that is hugely popular with families (and a second location in San Ramon, now separately owned), this new endeavor of the Yus feels less like an upscale Chinese restaurant and more like a bistro that just happens to serve Chinese food.
The restaurant is located in a stand-alone building just off First Street in Livermore’s rapidly revitalizing historic downtown. In the restaurant’s entrance, curved banquettes and low tables furnish the cozy lounge, and stout pillars glittering with bits of red glass punctuate the scene. Niches surrounding the main dining room are adorned with Buddha head sculptures, and the wooden chairs recall the sleek elegance of traditional Chinese furniture.
The menu offers excellent Szechuan food peppered with playful fusion concepts. In particular, appetizer choices feature a number of dishes involving cheese—hardly a Chinese staple—and dessert selections come completely from the West. The most sensual of the fusion appetizers are the Chinese gougères, in which the chef uses fried wonton wrappers instead of the traditional pâte à choux to enclose aged Gruyère and cream cheese. The result is a sharp contrast of crisp exterior and warm, oozing cheese. Other choices include warm Laura Chenel goat cheese wontons served with caramelized apples and pine nuts.
Little heat flags show up regularly on the menu to signal examples of true Szechuan cooking. But lovers of searing-hot food, take note: Make your taste for spice known to your server, who will happily advise the kitchen to kick it up a notch. Otherwise, dishes here are not palate-burners. Most customers prefer a more moderate approach to spice, explains Wine Director Nicholas Liang.
The house specialties are among the menu’s finest dishes, often marrying Western products with traditional Chinese techniques. Aged orange peel, found in Chinese medical practice as well as in Chinese cuisine, infuses the sauce for Harris Ranch beef marinated in Grand Marnier. (Like brandy, whiskey, and Scotch, Grand Marnier is now so popular in Hong Kong that Asian cookbook author Joyce Jue says, "It’s almost ‘Chinese.’ ") The dish is delicious. After marinating in the orange liqueur, the slim strips of beef are coated in a light batter, fried until crisp, and served in a dense, sweet and spicy orange-flavored sauce.
Another house special is prawns stuffed with asparagus, sautéed, and finished with a dried shellfish and garlic sauce. The prawns are crisp and sweet, and the sauce rich.
As in any good Chinese restaurant, "the more the merrier" guideline should be followed here. A bigger party not only means more food to mix and match, it allows more sampling of Uncle Yu’s terrific wine list. The expansive, thoughtful list pays Livermore its due, but the European wines are most interesting and best complement the food. There are plenty of reasonably priced selections and some pleasant surprises—such as a 10-year-old Kalin Cellars Livermore Sémillon by the glass; a red from Portugal made with port varietals; and a slightly sparkling rosé from Savoie made with Gamay grapes—all of which lend themselves to pairing with Chinese fare.
"Szechuan sauces are pretty flavorful," Liang says. When matching with wine, "you have to follow the sauce, not the fish or the chicken." For chili-spiked sauces? "I go to Germany and France’s Rhône Valley." For fish flavored with ginger? "I look to Alsace." And the best foil for orange-infused beef? "Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, [which is] not extremely complex but [is] very persistent when it comes to standing up to spiciness. And it naturally has an orange flavor."
Liang, a Canton native, discovered on the way to becoming a full-time computer geek that people (and cuisine) were more fun than machines. Although he is an unintentional convert to the food world, Liang has successfully turned a staff of locals into professionals with cheerful and insightful advice.
So far, business is thriving. Since the July opening, the restaurant has attracted a band of regulars who keep the staff hopping. Livermore residents seem to appreciate that Uncle Yu’s has not only come to the vineyard, it has melded its offerings with the fruit of the vine.
Contact: 39 S. Livermore Ave., Livermore, (925) 449-7000,
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Price: Appetizers $5–$10, entrées $12–$30
Alcohol: Full bar