Perhaps you remember my post last month about lunching at Lafitte, the rather spirited, nonconforming San Francisco restaurant, which had received a scathing one-and-a-half star review earlier by the mighty San Francisco Chronicle.
There were many things I enjoyed about that lunch. There were also a few things I thought definitely needed rethinking. All in all, it was a lunch that left me mostly satisfied, but also with the feeling that there had to be more to the place than what I had on the plate that afternoon.
Sure enough, there is. Dinner is where Chef Russell Jackson and his rebel crew truly shine. Lunch was like a band warming up — fun to listen to, but leaving you wanting something more polished and satisfying in the end. Dinner delivers that. It’s when the kitchen crew lets it rip with creativity and technique, leaving you rapt.
There’s no better seat to experience all that, too, than at the massive wood counter that fronts the open kitchen. As of a week ago, when I was invited in for dinner as a guest of the restaurant, all the counter seats are now reserved for a new prix fixe dining experience.
There’s little clue to what’s in store. Scan down the regular menu, and you’ll spot a tiny symbol of a flag with a skull and crossbones with “$125” next to it. That’s the symbol for the tasting menu and as much information as you’ll get about it.
Take a seat at the counter (aka, the “Chef’s Plank”) in front of Chef Jackson, who will personally cook for you for the night. He’ll ask you if you have any allergies or vehement dislikes. But beyond that, you’re in his experienced hands.
With his wild mohawk, sturdy build and handle of “Dissident Chef,” he’s an imposing figure. But he puts you right at ease once he starts gabbing, and his goofball humor comes out.
As he builds the dishes in front of you, he’ll tell you how he came to name his restaurant, “Lafitte” instead of his originally intended “Lafayette,” because he’s admittedly not the best speller. So, when he tried to spell “Lafayette” in the Google search box, up popped up “Lafitte” instead, and he became enamored with the 18th Century pirate. When you ask about the upside-down red stick figure emroidered on the back of his chef’s jacket, he might just pull out his iPad to show you photos of himself, sky-diving.
Dinner at the counter started with foie gras torchon accented with pink sea salt, plum puree, and house-pickled lychees, their floralness still evident, but their sweetness obscured by sharpness instead. In a funny way, the flavors were reminiscent of some sort of New Wave Chinese duck with plum sauce. I tasted the rich, mildly gamy taste of the duck coupled with the sweet, thick, fruity plum sauce and was immediately transported back to my Chinese-American childhood.
Next up, decadent burrata with Armenian cucumbers and spinach, both of which had been compressed in vacuum-sealed bags to ever so soften their textures. A fried squash blossom filled with a Yukon Gold potato mash mixed with farmers cheese, plus a drizzle of a zesty, housemade “Wish-Bone” vinaigrette completed this starter.
That was followed by a knockout bouillabaisse with juicy, tender chunks of cod and lobster in a tomato-saffron broth.
As Jackson showed my husband and I his sky-diving photos, it inspired him to pull out a melon he had just gotten. It was from a farm in Davis that Jackson discovered when he was falling to earth above it on one of his jumps.
Taking a bite of the cantaloupe-hued flesh, he was inspired to create a dish on the fly: duck served rare with broccoli raab puree and chunks of the sweet, complex melon. Duck and fruit always make magic together. And if you’ve never cooked melon before, you’d be surprised at how well it takes to savory preparations like this.
The next dish arrived looking a whole lot like pork belly. But it was actually lamb belly, a cut he was inspired to cook with from fellow San Francisco chef, Dominique Crenn of Luce, who has cooked at Lafitte for special events. Think the rich, fatty, unctuousness of pork belly but with the deeper flavor of lamb. It was served with a dice of white eggplant caponata, which had a soft, silky, slippery texture uncannily similar to the lamb belly.
Sweets followed, beginning with a fun, inspired corn panna cotta with blackberry coulis and popcorn crumbles strewn over the top, giving the entire dish a wonderful toasty, roasty flavor.
With San Francisco’s only chocolate factory just up the waterfront from his restaurant, Jackson has begun experimenting with making ice cream from TCHO’s “beta” milk chocolate. Although light in color, the ice cream had a deep, dark flavor. This is no wimpy milk chocolate ice cream, but a bold one tasting of hints of cinnamon and malt.
Next, a white chocolate-raspberry souffle that arrived poofy and hot, airy and eggy, and deflated into nothingness with the help of a spoon.
Dinner ended with a plate of thick rounds of house-baked peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies.
Lafitte has instituted some changes: The menu, once created very much on a whim each day, will now revert to one that will be changed every 30 days instead. Jackson also is bringing a bit of the spontaneity and surreptitiousness of his “underground supperclub dinners” of yore to the restaurant with a new “Grounded Series” of events, offered one Sunday a month. These will be dinners based on a theme, or in conjunction with a farmer, purveyer, winery, spirits producer or guest chef.
The Sept. 19 event will feature the Clandestine Farmers Urban Underground Garden Harvest; Oct. 19 will welcome guest chef alum, Liam Mayclem, host of CBS’ “Eye on the Bay,” for “Burning Brit” night; Nov. 14 is all about local Dungeness crab; and Dec. 19 shines the spotlight on white and black truffles.
And don’t forget the option to dine at the counter, the best seat on this rollicking pirate ship.
More: My Lunch at Lafitte