Pier 5, The Embarcadero
Chef Russell Jackson invites adventurous diners to approach the plank, a six-seat bar at the edge of Lafitte's open kitchen. There he seems to compose dishes on the fly, combining disparate ingredients that sometimes meld, sometimes shout, but always excite.
Lafitte, at Pier 5 on the Embaracadaro, opened a little more than a year ago. Its market-driven menu changes daily and harks back to Chef Jackson's days as the Dissident Chef at the helm of SubCulture Dining, an underground supper club. Subscribers received passwords and were instructed to call a phone number to learn the secret location of each night's meal.
As we perused Lafitte's intriguing cocktail menu, the chef claimed to have no idea what he was about to set before us. "You're early," he commented, not at all fazed. He chortled as he rummaged through the refrigerator, pulling out mostly unidentifiable bagged foodstuffs.
My drink, the Mohawk, smoothly blended sweetness and a hint of spice with Russell's Reserve bourbon and a generous twist of lemon. The chef was carefully carving slices of hard cheese, which he combined in a bag with sprigs of fresh thyme and olive oil and set to simmering in sous vide.
The first plate started things off with a flourish: a rosy chunk of pate de fois gras, a spoonful of house-made applesauce, crystalline cava jelly, Chinese fleur de sel, and Italian orange oil drizzled over all. A lively bundle of flavors, but they played nicely with each other, and the fois gras was superb.
As I watched Jackson compose the next course, all I could think was, "How is that going to work?" A thin slice of pure white Iberian lardo went down next to a similar portion of compressed cucumber, adorned with pickled lychee, crushed hazelnuts, extra-virgin olive oil, and slivered Italian prunes. It was smooth, chewy and crunchy; rich, nutty, tart and fruity. Each bite held your interest, and how often can you say that about a salad?
"Spicy time!" the chef announced, presenting grilled padrone peppers, quail, and cherries resting on a wash of pepper jelly and spiked with fresh marjoram. The first-of-the-season cherries were meltingly soft from the grill and moderated the heat of the padrones. Jackson described finding the unusually large peppers in the farmers' market and surmised that a week of warm weather had given them extra bite.
The sun went down and the Bay Bridge lit up, framed by large windows set in bare concrete walls. We watched Jackson sampling ingredients as he plated, smiling broadly. Once he tasted, frowned, then pitched that bag in the trash. "Candied fennel. Didn't work out."
A heavenly, lemony scent wafted from a bowl of fresh pasta, twisted tubes topped with shreds of braised rabbit, peas, and dollops of ricotta that had been soured with Meyer lemon juice and dressed with the reserved whey. I was so enraptured that I didn't put my fork down 'til the big bowl was empty (thus, no picture!).
Next came... hmmm. Pork with anchovies? Intensely meaty Iberican pork tenderloin held its own against the salty briny flavor, along with onions, capers, and radishes washed in a poussin demi-glace. "A marriage made in heaven," Jackson declared. "Surf and turf." I wasn't so certain; it made me think of those couples whose relationships seem to consist mostly of high volume and drama. A little too much excitement for my tastes.
Jackson handed us porcelain spoons, each holding a smooth brown sphere. "Chocolate fois gras salty ball," he intoned, gravely advising me to eat it in one bite. He cackled at my reaction when the ball popped like a balloon in my mouth, spilling liquid salty chocolate richness.
The cheese finally re-appeared. It was Manchego, and the warm bath hadn't softened it at all, just infused it with herbal flavors, with the added touch of a cherry reduction.
Our final course was startling: a gin cocktail and a Meyer lemon souffle. The Corpse Reviver, despite its name, was a softly fruity, floral drink. I admit a bias against souffles that don't contain chocolate, but this one was perfectly textured, pure lemon sweetness.
It was a roller coaster of a meal, but hugely enjoyable, and a fascinating glimpse of an original chef in his element.