Not Quite a Revolution but a Revelation
Pier 5 along the Embarcadero (near Broadway), San Francisco
The Embarcadero neighborhood
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
In the last few years, Chef Russell Jackson has been serving up his creative dishes in an underground private dining restaurant that moved from house to house. You had to email him for reservations and then he’d email you the locale and password. It was all rather cloak and dagger as he skirted normal rules of running a restaurant after years toiling away at the Black Cat in North Beach and his own Los Angeles restaurant Russell’s.
This all added to his mystique of “The Dissident Chef.”
Still trying to cling to his persona as the outsider — this time trying to create a food revolution — Jackson is now serving up his food in a very public and legitimate location along the Embarcadero in San Francisco with his new restaurant Lafitte, which opened in April.
Less than three months after it opened, Lafitte received a critical 1.5 stars (out of 4) from the Chronicle’s Michael Bauer. I was surprised by the review, not just because of the low marks but because it came when the restaurant was fairly new and still finding its way.
In the past, Bauer reviewed a restaurant after it had been open for at least six months and made at least three visits (he still does the three visits). But I think it’s a sign of the social media times when traditional food critics like Bauer feel compelled to do a review of high-profile restaurants so quickly because a buzz is already created by food bloggers and Yelpers, eagerly posting photos and declarations of their love or hate for a new restaurant.
Not letting Bauer’s review sway me, I decided to check out Lafitte with my fellow food blogger Foodhoe, who has actually been to one of the Dissident Chef’s private dinners in the past. (I never got the nerve to do it as a solo diner, not knowing where I was going or who I was dining with.)
Arriving for an early reservations, the inside dining room seemed smaller than I imagined, maybe because the center wasn’t packed with tables but instead a long communal table. The high ceilings added to the grand space, but they were also to blame for the acoustics, making it very loud even in a near-empty restaurant.
We seated ourselves near a two-top that gave us a view of the window looking out at the bay and, more importantly, a view of the open kitchen in the center of the room where we could see Chef Jackson and his supporting chefs prepping for the night’s meals. (Early on, Jackson seemed more focused on paperwork than he was on the finer details of cooking.)
One of Bauer’s criticisms was the challenge of Jackson’s daily menu, which made it difficult for his chefs to master a dish when it was off the menu the next day. Before we arrived, Foodhoe read on Jackson’s newsletter (he distributes an email newsletter, which Foodhoe of course subscribes to) that he’s making a few dishes standards. There are still changing courses based on what’s available at the market, but it appears the popular items will remain.
The menu was a mix of California cuisine with some Spanish influences. We started by sharing two appetizers, the Pan-Roasted Padrons and Apricots ($7) and the Cured Sardines with Breakfast Radish ($8).
The padrons were a visual feast in color, with the brilliant warm green color of the peppers contrasting with the deep orange of the season’s apricots. The dish was simply prepared by blistering the peppers in a pan and then tossing them with olive oil and salt, mixing the sweet juices from the apricots. The simplicity but audacity of combining these two ingredients was impressive.
The sardines were intriguing. I’m a fan of sardines for health reasons (better than salmon), but Foodhoe was wary of the tiny bones. In Lafitte’s version, the sardines are cured so the texture was like eating raw fish but it was cooked because of the curing process. One bite and I fell in love with the texture. It was like eating sashimi with the tender, fleshy meat of the fish. The thinly sliced radishes added a nice pop in color to the pleasing presentation. (Also, I thought the bones were so thin, I actually ate them without any worries.)
Now, we were headed towards our entrees, but I should note that I decided to go with the Roasted Nettle Spaghetti ($14). I thought this wouldn’t be enough for me, so I also ordered the popular Roasted Scallops ($11), which is an appetizer. For a few minutes, our server was confused because he kept thinking Foodhoe and I were going to share three appetizers, when really I wanted the scallops to come with my spaghetti so I could get a fuller entrée.
Anywho, I guess you can’t fight tradition even though all the servers’ T-shirts say “revolution.” Eating an appetizer with an entrée is too revolutionary, apparently, because my scallops came with our sardines instead of with my spaghetti.
The scallops, however, were perfectly seared and cooked just tenderly so that it was still slightly raw in the center. I could sense Foodhoe lusting over my scallops (I did give her a taste), which sat on a bed of green beans with harissa jus that was pleasant but paled in comparison to the seared scallops.
When my spaghetti arrived, it was a nice bowl of spaghetti that our server says was cooked and then pan-fried. That gave the spaghetti an interesting depth of flavor that I’ve never experienced with spaghetti. The bowl was filled with a few medallions of summer squash and fingerling potatoes, all held together with ricotta.
Foodhoe went for the grand Iberico Shoulder with broccoli rabe and fingerling potatoes ($30). Iberico is a Spanish pig known for being raised on a lovely pasture on a diet of acorns. The pig is used to make the expensive iberico jamon that’s like eating thin slices of fat, but it’s the good fat as they say.
For Foodhoe’s dish, slices of the pig’s shoulder were roasted just barely, leaving much of the center ruby red. When I tried a small piece, it tasted so good but so rich and I was worried how Foodhoe could finish her plate even though the pieces didn’t look very large. She did her best, as you can imagine.
You’d think after that we wouldn’t have room for desserts, but Foodhoe was pulled to Lafitte’s Buttermilk Panna Cotta ($7), which was served with a peach coulis. She enjoyed the milky texture of the panna cotta and deemed it one of the best she’s had.
I decided to try the Brown Turkey Fig and Plum Tart ($7), which looked beautiful when it arrived. The tart filling was a bit tart from the large juicy figs, and the pastry shell was weak, not serving as a developed vehicle for the dessert. I was hoping for some whipped cream to counter balance the tartness of the tart.
Side note: Another early review from a local magazine criticized the service, which was labeled as inattentive. It’s hard for Foodhoe and I to judge the service since we ate early when the place wasn’t super busy. From our early experience, the servers were all friendly, attentive, and helpful. (Maybe that’s a vote for eating early at Lafitte?)
Overall, I was pleasantly mesmerized by Lafitte and the menu by Chef Jackson. The fresh ingredients combined in innovative ways were a revelation. It made me believe that as time goes by, Jackson and Lafitte might surely begin a revolution. But first he has to establish and refine his cause. From the early signs I’ve tasted, however, I’m ready to sign up.
Single guy rating: 4 stars (fresh and enlightening)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Read Foodhoe’s review and see her luscious photos with her new camera here.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
Not Quite a Revolution but a Revelation