KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Cafe Majestic Lives up to its Name
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Saturday, May 05, 2007
Cafe Majestic Lives up to its Name

When I received an email inviting me to a new restaurant with an unknown chef serving local, seasonal Cal-French cuisine, what did I do? I yawned. Shuffled a few papers. Clicked over to Perez Hilton to read about Britney's rumored lipo. That kind of menu is a dime a dozen in this town. But then I said yes anyway.

After having eaten at Café Majestic, all I can say is yum, yum, yum.

Full disclosure: my meal was comped. These days, there's a lot of debate in (and out of) the blogosphere about the ethics of reviewing restaurants. Big publications can afford for their critics to eat out anonymously multiple times. Small publications can't, and when I go to dinner, even if it's for work, I usually pay my own way. When a new restaurant opens, they often invite media guests to enjoy dinner on them. There is no obligation to write a single word about their restaurant, and I often don't, nor do I sugarcoat my opinions. Two rules of the road when I write about a media dinner: I will always tell you it was free, and I will never comment on the service. It's impossible to judge if my treatment will be a fair representation of the average. Now let's continue.

Café Majestic resides in the Hotel Majestic, a century-old building in Pac Heights with furnishings that evoke a bygone era and a cozy bar downstairs that boasts a collection of rare butterflies (pinned to boards, not fluttering around). The restaurant was closed for four years, and after a million dollar renovation, the new owners reopened it six months ago, and brought on chef Ian Begg in January.

As soon as I entered the dining room, I was happy. Am I the only one who's sick of exposed red brick walls, communal tables, and concrete floors? Café Majestic is elegant but not fussy. Cream walls are hung with pen and ink sketches and subtle gold accents trace the fabric of plush banquettes. Look closely and you'll notice white porcelain dogs everywhere -- flanking the left side of the restaurant or on a decorative table -- and it becomes clear the owners are the kind of people who would tongue kiss their prized Corgis. Dressy attire is appropriate here, and again I say hallelujah! There are only so many more times I can force on my thong-baring, ankle-hugging jeans before I snap and cut them to shreds with nail scissors.

The meal began with a Brobdingnagian amuse bouche: asparagus gazpacho with a "caviar" of day boat scallops, cucumbers, Meyer lemon and Fresno chili. It was too lemony, and I didn't really want to finish it, which led to a debate with my boyfriend about size.

He says: bigger is better.
She says: good things come in small packages.

Our first course was a dozen Marin Miyagis ($36) with lime mignonette. The substitution of lime for the classic champagne or white wine vinegar was magical and refreshing, and it brightened up the sauce without overpowering the oysters' delicate, briny flavors.

Arugula, Fuji apples, blue cheese, and a walnut vinaigrette ($9) sounds dull, I know; after all, you can find some version of this fruit/cheese/nut salad almost anywhere. But I was in the mood for a light start to the evening, and the salad was beautifully balanced and dressed with restraint. The Fuji slivers were so thin, they were translucent.

We were so tempted by the sautéed potato gnocchi, cipollini onions, white truffle oil, roasted garlic cream, asparagus ($17) that we begged for a half-portion just to taste. What might have been a gut-busting dairy bomb in less skilled hands was light as a feather. (Maybe two feathers.) The gnocchi were fluffy and the delicate cream sauce was infused with deep, sweet notes of roasted garlic and onion. Though one food writer I know calls truffle oil "cheap thrills," this dish proves there is a time and a place.

It also illustrates both the flairs and the flaws of the Café Majestic kitchen: Begg is a young and talented chef, but he plays it safe too often. Dishes like grilled Hawaiian ono, pea shoots, green garlic, sea urchin cream, chili oil ($28) prove that he doesn't have to. I loved the uni's subtle sea-kissed sweetness, and there was just enough chili oil to keep the lusciousness in check. Pea shoots, a food I generally avoid, added just the right crunch and bitterness, and I gobbled every last one.

Grilled Mountain River Farms venison loin ($28) is decidedly un-local -- it comes from New Zealand -- but my boyfriend declared it the best he's ever eaten. Its raspberry-pink flesh was tender and free of the gaminess venison is often cursed with. Bitter endive and blood orange marmalade gave a one-two punch, and a snowfall of pine nuts added creaminess. The fiddlehead ferns coiled on top were a welcome reminder of spring in an otherwise wintry dish.

I was disappointed with dessert. The Medjool date tarte ($8) was simply too sweet. A flat pastry disc was topped with a thick layer of pureed dates and star anise ice cream, then drizzled with Marshall Farms honey. I loved the Middle Eastern nod, but the dish needed something tangy to save it from itself.

General manager and wine director Ryan Maxey chose flattering wine matches for the food -- a 2006 Condes de Albarei Albarino Rias Baixas for the ono, a 2004 Santa Barbara Vineyards Syrah from Santa Ynez Valley for the venison. More than his wine pairings, though, we loved his enthusiasm and southern hospitality.

With a grown-up ambiance and captivating cooking, Café Majestic has a lot to offer. If chef Begg would give freer reign to his more inspired touches, it could just become one of San Francisco's most exciting new restaurants.

Café Majestic
1500 Sutter Street
San Francisco
(415) 441-1280
Open 7 days a week for breakfast and dinner

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Blogger Michael Procopio said...

Thanks for the review. I am definitely venturing past the bar and straight into the restaurant. Their breakfast menu looks quite yum, too.

5/05/2007 10:07 AM

Blogger Sam said...

Your review is somewhat different to the one I am writing (you know - the one where I pay my own way and have to take the service into account.)

Here is the tackiest part: we weren't given an amuse like you were but on our bill it clearly stated:

"2 AMUSE 0.00"

5/05/2007 6:23 PM

Blogger Catherine Nash said...

I'd love to hear what you think about breakfast if you go.

5/07/2007 4:17 PM

Blogger Doug N said...

I dined at Cafe Majestic when it reopened last summer and multiple times after Ryan Maxey and Chef Ian Begg took over the restaurant.

When the restaurant reopened after it's long rennovation it had problems (i.e. A CA only wine list, and some not very notable CA wines at that, inconsistency in service and but thefood preparation was good). I dined at the Majestic in March after Ryan and Chef Ian were on board, and it was very good. There were still some still bad CA wines on the list, but the menu was slowing changing with Ian's influence. I dined there a couple of weeks ago, and Ryan remembered me from my March visitation, and I was very pleased with my meal (I had the scallops) and my wine pairings.

Ryan did note when the media were invited, the major complaint were the desserts. And that has been changed a bit, I had the pineapple "sandwich" coupled with a 2000 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Barbara. Superb. At the moment, due to budget constraints, Chef Ian is handling the desserts too.

At 9PM on a weekenight, the restaurant had quite a few diners. And happy diners at that.

But, I agree that Chef Ian should cut loose and let his imagination and talents stir up some unique dishes.

I love the dining room. Old world is good. Dressing up is good. Eating great food is good.

I'm glad you enjoyed the Majestic.

5/24/2007 5:47 PM

Blogger Catherine Nash said...

Doug, thanks for the comment and the back story. I'm glad to hear you have enjoyed meals there, too. I noticed Bauer had some nice things to say about the place on his blog for the Chronicle recently. Glad to hear the team is getting their share of warm welcomes! Now, I just have to find time to return and check out the improved desserts...

5/26/2007 12:14 PM

Blogger Doug N said...

I went to the Cafe Majestic last night at 9:30 PM last night. I had the Venison Loin, and it was very nice paired with a Santa Barbara Syrah. I was very pleased with the Venison.

And for dessert, I had the Boca Negra paired with a pleasant glass of Warre's 10 year Tawny. The Boca Negra was good, but I prefer the Pineapple sandwich from last time. The desserts have improved but still have a bit to go yet.

And I noticed new wines on the wine list since my last visit, and some very nice very but affordable wines!

But, I keep waiting for the Cafe Majestic to make a great culinary leap, and to surprise me. Make me go "WOW!".

By the time I left at 11:00PM there were still diners in the restaurant. That's a good sign.

6/07/2007 5:36 PM


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