Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Dish on Dining: Jack Falstaff -- CLOSED

Clean and Crisp Dishes from the Ground to the Sky
UPDATE (04/30/09): This restaurant plans to close on May 9, 2009.
598 Second St. (at Brannan), San Francisco
PH: 415.836.9239
Open lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.; dinner, Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
Web site

When you look over the menu of Executive Chef Jonnatan Leiva at the handsome Jack Falstaff restaurant, you can see that Leiva has all the areas covered. His starters are broken into four areas: “from the market,” “sea,” “land” and “air.” It’s a something-for-everyone approach to dining, which helped this week because I was dining with a vegetarian friend.

This past Monday night, I visited this SOMA restaurant up the street from the Giants ballpark with my friend Susan, who was in town for a convention. (Susan and I worked together when I lived in New York.) I suggested we check out Jack Falstaff, which is part of the PlumpJack Group, because its chef, Leiva, had just been named one of the rising young chefs of 2008 by the San Francisco Chronicle.

After a few minutes looking for the entrance (it’s actually not off the street but near an alcove that looks like a passageway to the freight elevator), we entered the dark and romantic settings, walking past the bar with heated outdoor seating. We sat along a wall that wasn’t as much cozy as claustrophobic. Surrounded by pale green velour, I felt like we were in a padded cell. But I guess the padding helps muffle the noise because Jack Falstaff—at least on this night—lacked the boisterous cacophony you often get at the other loft-like restaurants in SOMA.

Going back to the menu, Leiva offers a variety of items as starters, many of which are heavy enough to be combined into entrées (such as the short ribs and quail). There are only two pasta dishes, but they can be ordered as starters or as an entrée. Then there are six main entrées to choose from, and also a list of six sides to fill out your dining experience.

There were a few unusual items on the menu, such as the Crispy Pig Trotters, which I really wanted to try until I found out it was deep-fried. Overall, while I give Leiva a nod for creativity, I thought many of his ingredients were actually fairly commonplace these days. I’m talking Kona Kampachi (love it but this has now taken over ahi tuna as the tartare of choice), diver scallops, Liberty Farms duck and grass-fed lamb. (For you bone marrow fans, I noticed bone marrow mentioned twice on the menu: once as a side with toast and another with the prime sirloin.)

We started the dinner with an amuse bouche from the chef—a panna cotta with braised fennel on top. Susan and I couldn’t get our mouths around the feeling of panna cotta at the start of a meal instead of the end, although the fennel added a nice, buttery texture to try to trick our minds.

Susan started with the Butter Lettuce and Apple Salad ($10), which came with brie, candied walnuts, slices of blood oranges, carrot, shaved fennel and walnut vinaigrette. It arrived plated as a trio of mini salad cups, which is great if you want to share it with two others at your table. It was a crunchy and clean salad, fresh and enjoyable. The petals of orchid flowers made it especially pretty.

My dinner was all about the “air” as I chose both a starter and entrée that were poultry. So I started with the Pan-Seared Sonoma Free Range Quail ($14), which was two sides of quail nicely crisp from the pan-searing and sitting on top a maple-glazed apple. Everything was topped with a foie gras emulsion.

I loved the quail for the complementary flavors of the savory skin and meat with the sweetness of the baked apple. I didn’t get any of the foie gras, though, which came sprayed on as a foam. The strong natural flavors of the quail seemed to overpower any essence of foie gras. Still, it was a tasty dish.

Next came our entrees. Susan had the Black Truffle and Ricotta Cheese Agnolotti ($15 as appetizer/$22 for entrée, but Susan opted for the appetizer size). The simple preparations of shaved parmesan cheese and olive oil made this pure comfort food, which Susan said was well done.

Continuing my fowl dinner, I had the Crispy Liberty Farms Duck Breast ($26). It came in such an unusual presentation that I thought I’d order the sirloin instead. The duck breast was cut in bigger chunks so that it could stand up in this array of duck and spicy fried cauliflower on a bed of steamed tatsoi green vegetables. It was all very elegant.

I loved the crispy texture of the duck’s skin and the cauliflower, which tasted like it was likely fried like Japanese-style tempura. But the duck itself was a little too done for my taste. I prefer it a bit tender. Still, I give Leiva props for an inventive presentation of your basic duck breast.

We ended our dinner with the Cinnamon-Sugar Donut Holes ($8), which our server said was a house favorite that’s consistently on the menu. After a night of interesting plating, I was a bit disappointed when our donut holes came out simply stacked on a plate with a side of fresh raspberries and a container of crème anglaise.

Don’t get me wrong, the donut holes were freshly made, piping hot right out of the kitchen with a fluffy interior and crispy shell (although not as strong a cinnamon taste as I would have liked). But the crème anglaise was runny and it just made this dessert rather pedestrian after all the other fashion-forward dishes that paraded to our table earlier in the evening.

Despite the thud of an ending, the dinner overall was quite entertaining and satisfying. I love chefs who spend time preparing quality ingredients and plating them in creative ways, thus allowing us diners another element of the eating experience to talk about and dissect.

As we left Jack Falstaff, I wondered about the talent of Chef Leiva and how long he’ll remain here. As part of the PlumpJack group, he could easily be moved to the flagship PlumpJack restaurant in the Cow Hollow neighborhood, which had been going through some chef changes in the past year. I do think that Leiva’s abilities require a larger showcase for his talent, so you should check out his work now while he’s at Jack Falstaff because I’m sure he’ll be moving on to bigger things fairly soon.

Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (Eat with a rising star)

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

Jack Falstaff in San Francisco

1 comment:

Passionate Eater said...

I love that you were so adventurous with the foam! You know, it is funny about good meals, if it ends well, you'll remember everything as being great. If it doesn't end well, . . . Well, you know what I mean.