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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  • Oh yummy! What fabulous food!



  • Of all of the things you pictured and described, two look alarmingly delicious to me… fried olives and the English Pea Soup. A micro green garnish would have gone better with the olives IMHO. I would have liked to taste the romesco with padron peppers, they are among my favorite peppers, though I really just love them sauteed in olive oil and nicely salted.

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  • Everything looks wonderful, but had I the coin I’d be on a plane for that pea soup. I’ll wager no one left hungry. Have a great day. Blessings…Mary

  • It’s a gorgeous interior. I can’t wait to check it out. The English pea soup is so pretty…

  • Ha! I was just there too and did a review on my blog. You definitely should go for dinner, so many more interesting choices and the prices seem to be more appropriate at dinner time (in fact, I thought some of the appetizers were cheap). I had some friends go for lunch and they had the same reaction that the price and portion didn’t seem to match. So dinner sounds like the better route to go.

  • It looks and sounds beautiful!
    I don’t really take M. Bauer’s reviews seriously, his star-system doesn’t make much sense to me (i.e. raving about a place, then giving it 2 stars, trashing a place and giving it 3…).

  • the food here is a sure winner, how can I not dining here! just awesome knowing who is cooking, salivating now already!

  • I was invited to dinner at Lafitte when it opened. After studying some menus, I declined. Too eccentric for me! Looks like a cool place and I hear they have a great selection of non-alcoholic cocktails 🙂

  • Everything sounds (and looks) delish! One and a half stars seems a bit harsh. A little pricey, but not over-the-top. And I must say, of course, there is no S.F. restaurant critic more high-powered than Ms. Jung!

  • I just recently had family in S.F.- I should have had them check this out! What a cool culinary story!

  • All the food here just make me hungry! Every dish looks so delicious!

  • granted, everything looks outstanding, but all i needed to know was that he cooked for adam duritz and crew. 🙂

  • I think the whole story is intriguing! And really liked the food you were served. The pea soup presentation was unusual and it looked really delicious. As did everything else.
    The web camera in the kitchen is a novel idea…wonder if it will last or if anyone will watch?

  • Visited the restaurant for lunch and had a meal that was one of the most disappointing meals I have had in San Francisco in a long time.

    We sent back our pasta entree because the pasta was raw…it could not have been considered al dente by any standard. A considerable wait later…it returned and had not improved. Our appetizer, a simple salad was also nondescript. We believe that we hit a day when the kitchen was having a really bad day….as the critic indicated seems to be the case. 🙁 I had high hopes.

  • Wow, each dish kept sounding better than the last, thanks to you I’ve just added another restaurant to my growing list to try.

  • Ahh how controversial! 1.5 stars is something indeed…I like the webcam idea actually!

  • I definitely like how well the dishes are dressed with the garnishes- Personally, I have been accustomed to using microgreens and edible flowers and blossoms to dress the dishes. I would be more than willing to give this place a shot next time I’m up in the Bay area-

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  • Carolyn,

    Sounds like quite the experience. I can’t imagine eating everything that he made for you for dinner. Too bad I can’t try it out – but it’s a ways to travel for dinner when you live in WI.

  • Those olives caught my attention. I’d like a whole bowl of them and something icy to wash them down with… BUT 5.00 for 5 olvies.. I just can’t do it. One of the worst buys for your money that I’ve ever heard of to date.

    I was going to go when they first opened and had a reservation but I got very sick and had to cancel. I’m sorta glad I did. I’ll give it a little longer to sort things out. I have very high hopes for the Chef and his place.

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