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Ahoy, Lafitte

Named after an 18th century French pirate, San Francisco’s three-month-old Lafitte restaurant has generated so much buzz lately that you’d think a battle had erupted on the high seas at its Pier 5 location.

It reached a frenzy last month when a certain high-powered San Francisco restaurant critic bestowed all of one and a half stars on the restaurant (ouch!).

Not surprisingly, Chef-Proprietor Russell Jackson, known as the “Dissident Chef,” took umbrage at that. While he acknowledges that some of the criticisms are valid ones that he was already working to correct, what really riled him were the sarcastic comments about the mohawk he and his cooks sport, a ‘do that he considers a symbol of solidarity in his kitchen.

Into these turbulent waters, I waded recently to check out the place for myself at lunch-time. To be fair, lunch is much tamer than the more ambitious fare offered at dinner, with a menu that changes every single night. Also to be fair, even though we paid the tab, one of two friends I was with was an old friend of Jackson’s. So, the chef stopped by to chat regularly, and threw in the free cookies at the end of the meal.

Lafitte has a cool, industrial vibe with exposed pipes, lots of wood, and a profusion of natural light from walls of windows. The kitchen is not only open, it’s on the Web. Thanks to a tiny camera perched on a beam, you can get a real-time look at what’s going on in the kitchen 24/7 by going to the “menu page” of the Lafitte Web site. Jackson says he installed the camera to be transparent, to “show what we do here and to show that I am here in the kitchen.”

You may remember Jackson from his time cooking at the now-shuttered Black Cat in San Francisco. He also was a private chef for the Counting Crows, and created a sensation for his underground dinners, where people would meet at surreptitious spots for his prix-fixe dinners done on the sly.

There’s still a rogue quality to the food. You feel that Jackson’s doing his own thing here, making food he wants to play around with.

Everything is made in-house, including all the bread, such as the soft, yeasty rolls that preceded lunch.

We shared an assortment of dishes, including a creamy, chilled English pea soup ($6); and a lovely eggy, summer squash quiche with a nice flaky crust, and a dollop of a romesco sauce made from Padron peppers ($9).

Pate de Campagne ($8) had a coarse, spreadable texture that made it irresistible on more of that great homemade bread. The panzanella salad ($8) had torn pieces of house-baked whole wheat sourdough tossed with a tangle of radishes, peas and fennel. But one had to send out a search party for the tuna confit in the salad, as it was rather hard to find much of it at all.

Who can resist fried olives? Certainly not us when we spy it on a menu.  Five small olives were stuffed with brandade, then fried till golden, and served with a clever “Dirty Martini” sauce made with the olive brine. But at $5 for five olives, we thought this appetizer pricey, as fun as it was. We also found it a little odd that this finger-food was plated with red lettuce leaves, which actually turned up on quite a few of the appetizers as a garnish.

The chili burger ($16) was enormous and messy-good. The juicy patty was stuffed inside a soft, brioche bun with aged New York cheddar and an avalanche of Wagyu beef-white bean chili.

Buttermilk panna cotta ($7) was wiggly-jiggly, the perfect texture, and served in a pool of peach coulis. The aforementioned cookies were big, chewy, and packed with hazelnuts, chocolate and almonds. They’re the kind of cookies you wish you could nibble on all day.

Lafitte seems to be weathering the storm created by that now-infamous review. I can’t wait to see how it continues to evolve with this spirited chef at its helm.

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