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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Lafitte San Francisco

Photography courtesy of Rob Bergstrom

Omakase, a term in Japanese that literally means 'it is up to you'. When stated to a sushi chef, it means give me your best and freshest. I believe amongst American Foodies, it has come to mean 'I am a daring and sophisticated eater'. At it's best, I believe it becomes a contract between the diner and chef, that each will play their part in making a memorable dining experience happen. I believe the key to this relationship is to test your own limitations and conceptions about food, to interact and give back to the chef. I think chefs love to cook for people, in the end, being a chef is about feeding peopleand the chef's table is that chance to truly make fine dining a communication to play off of each other.

I recently had the opportunity to 'Walk the Plank' at Lafitte, a restaurant established in San Francisco, and conned by Chef Russel Jackson, he of Subculture Dining fame. And he still seeks to push the envelope of there dining can go, Lafitte has a pirate inspired attitude in it's approach to food and dining, breaking rules where they need to be broken, stealing the moment, when it needs to be stolen. I met my friends Rob and Michael, frequent dining explorers and companions, as well as Michael's friend who joined us as well. Along with ourselves, a batch of sweet kumquats, some Red Boat fish sauce and some Phu Quoc black pepper also made the trip 'down the plank'.

Our first course was to be a Sourdough blini with a Nettle Aioli and sliced Summer Truffles, I considered this to be a bold start, with the nettle puree being added at the last minute to the aioli, the summer truffles being extravagant, and the sourdough blini providing a solid base of flavor for the other elements to play off of. One of the great things about 'walking the plank' is that the food is right there when being prepared.
The nettle puree, as you can see, is quite vibrant, it was spooned next to the aioli, and then a cake spreader painted it across the plate like a palette knife creating an abstract modernist canvas, then the blini and about 1/4 of a truffle each. Hand sliced instead of shaved really gives the truffle a textural role that is mostly missed when it is shaved or chopped. The slightly crumbly/crunchy texture is hard to reconcile to the earthy warm aroma and taste. The soft starchy blini and vegetal nettle each rolling across the palate created complexity. An outstanding and confident opening shot.
A note about first courses, I think many chefs will present a first course that is easily the simplest dish to be served, it allows for building the palate and courses throughout a dinner. The idea of sending out a first course that is really well conceived, deeply complex and beautiful sets a challenge for the rest of the meal. Our pairings were handled with aplomb by the bartender, whose name, unfortunately, I didn't have the good graces to get. And I should have, as she is an excellent mixologist and made some excellent pairings of both wine and cocktails for our dinner. In addition to that, she was engaging and challenging. This is her throwing some attitude at the camera. She provided us with a crisp white wine, if I remember correctly it was a Sauvignon blanc, not my favorite wine, but a great match.
Rob was enjoying a Bloody Mary when I got there, late, again, did I mention, I hate driving in San Francisco, I am late to everything there. Anyway, he was enjoying a Red Boat fish sauce infused Bloody Mary, did I mention the bartender was good, real good? It was excellent stuff.
The second course, traditionally a soup course was to be an eye opener for me. One of the reasons I dine out is to try out what chefs are doing, to seek out how other people are seeing food and crafting their vision in the kitchen. I can cook very well at home, and wouldn't suffer if I had to eat my own food. But, from time to time, I run across someone who redefines what an ingredient or cooking can be. A chef that is not just assembling food, but, is crafting a vision, is really cooking. Here is where Chef showed me his chops, he understands his ingredients and techniques. If this were a sea battle, I just lowered my colors. Here are the two main ingredients of the second course, one is easily identified, foie gras and the second, a perfectly smoked pork belly strip.

Yes, that is pork belly, not fat back, and it is from an Iberico pig. It was perfectly smoked and yet, it is a hunk of fat. I am no fan of foie gras or raw pork fat, I find them to be two textures that are just to much for me. But, like I said, I was about to be taken to school. In these bowls, are the smoked pork belly, some raw peas, barely cooked potatoes and a stuffed squash blossom, with the goat cheese infused with Phu Quoc black pepper that we had brought for Chef.
And that broth being poured into the bowls, well, it was something special, Chef never actually revealed what it was, but, it had a definite duck flavor, and the color was rich, I had seen some duck confit, so my guess is that it was a duck confit poaching liquid which was used to briefly poach the foie gras. Each bowl got a slice of meltingly tender poachedfoie gras to finish.
Not a huge portion, but, this is a slice of foie gras, over a slice of smoked pork belly with a deep fried squash blossom on top and draped with duck confit broth, do you need more than this? Is there something wrong with you? Nobody should eat something this rich. And the lesson, each element of this dish rocked, alone, with it's neighbors and as a whole. The foie gras was transformed, ephemeral in texture, delicate in flavor and perfectly balanced by the smoke of the pork fat. And let me just add, as someone that has been smoking meat for over 30 years, this pork belly was perfect, this was the finest smoked soup element I have ever encountered. Smoke can become cloying, even over powering in soup very quickly, this never happened with this soup. And, the smoke was gone just as soon as the dish was gone. Perfect.
Above was course three, a pasta course and something that initially felt a little our of sorts. It was classic, perfectly classic. Did it have Red Boat in it? I sort of don't think so, although it would have been perfect for it. It was like the jazz musician who deftly weaves a little riff of classical music into a performance, as if to say 'yep, I can do that too'. This was pasta cooked al dente, with capers and herbs, a light tomato sauce, simply presented. Oh, and it lead to my getting a shot that I love, as I love knives, and Chef uses aWa-petty, a Wa-gyuto and  a Wa-santoku for his prep work.
And now on to the fourth course, which would be a course featuring salmon, I do not eat salmon, In particular, I do not like the texture of salmon skin and the fat along the skin. What can I say. But, there is that tacit agreement of omakase, oh what to do. Well, you have to try things. And I did notice that the salmon was beautifully prepared, with just the thin top half of the skin, the fatty horrid white part of the skin was gone. Braised greens, a light olive oil and a serious sear on the salmon, this seemed to be the plate, but, wait, is that a bottle of Red Boat (yes, we brought a bottle).
 Amazingly, Chef seemed to have a plan, he seemed to know that this sauce would go great dressed onto the salmon. How do great cooks have these kinds of instincts? He actually poured it over the salmon just before serving. The salmon skin remained crisp, according to everyone else who ate it. The salmon was actually good, the braised greens and excellent complement and the fish sauce unobtrusive, yet, providing a subtle reinforcement to all the flavors.
And to match the salmon, a surprise, as we had all expected the standard play, the Pinot gambit, but, our barkeep had other plans, she brought out the house cocktail, a Rio Nueovo, but, augmented boldly with the sweet kumquats we had brought along. The cachaca used in the drink was hand made, and signed by the maker. This was my second of these cocktails, but, the first one with the sweet kumquat, which changed the drink considerably, and I think for the better. This cocktail was all about impressive sourcing, along with a little elderberry syrup, this cocktail rocked with the salmon.
Oh, and it is a little known fact, but, it is critical that all 'cooks of the line' must be perfectly seasoned for the kitchen to work well. Here Chef is making fine seasoning adjustments.
On to course five, and course five was worth the wait, I learned of a cut of meat that has somehow escaped my knowledge thus far. It turns out, if you actually butcher a hog, you find a small part of the tenderloin that is along the rib cage, it is inconveniently shaped and ends up as trim. This is the most tender cut of pork I have ever had. It was marinated in Moroccan spices and served over puy lentils. It was an earthy and rich presentation, with the medium rare pork sitting atop, grilled perfectly and so tender.
The pairing to go with this dish was a earthy red wine, perfect for the dish. I am afraid that by this time, I was paying scant attention to the pairings, the food was just holding my attention completely at this point. The descriptions notwithstanding, I am more of a visceral eater, when I am eating truly fine food that holds my attention like this, I drop the idea of 'what I know' and give myself to the experience. This food fully realized what I had hoped for, I figured dessert would be anti-climatic. But, then she pulled out the port. I love port. In this case, a 10 year old Dow's Tawny. And this means chocolate.
 And yet one more last shot across my 'all knowing bow', a simple chocolate souffle. How unremarkable, I mean who doesn't do souffle, weee, eggy chocolate. Well, I have the port.
And so, after the first fork, I realize, this is some danged good souffle, the chocolate is so delicate and floral. In general, I can call the chocolate in a dessert. No kidding, I often get the chocolate down to the brand, sometimes even the source. This was nothing I knew and it was pure chocolate in expression. The pastry chef nailed her craft on this one. She said it was TCHO chocolate, this is something I will need to seek out. It was spectacularly fruity and delicate. I am not at all sure that it was not how she prepared the souffle, but, it was a singular end to an excellent and enjoyable meal. The port was a perfect pairing with it.
This meal would be memorable however because of how Chef and the kitchen and staff would interpret and present the ingredients for our dining. Now, one thing to note, almost without exception, all of us have foods we love, and foods we dislike, these can certainly affect our choices in how we react to food. This can be a limitation when choosing from a menu, but, when sitting at chef's table and asking him to cook at his whim, you must relinquish those tastes and try whatever is presented, after all, this is what 'omakase' is all about.


  1. It was great pleasure to share this meal with you all.
    Walking the Plank at Lafitte was an amazing experience which you have done some justice to here in pictures and words. Chef Jackson and his crew combined amazing ingredients, technique, and creativity to make a meal I will not forget. I felt like I was at a well rehearsed performance yet Chef and crew were improvising and inventing as they went.

    I cant wait to see how the Cosentino-Jackson throwdown goes this weekend at SF Chefs!

  2. I predict blood and guts, mostly guts though. And fat, there will be fat. You will note I added photo credit back in, which disappeared last night during sleep editing.