The Hungry Palate
New Cafe Majestic chef Louis Maldonado needs a bigger pair of shoes
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
When chef Ian Begg took over the kitchen at Cafe Majestic in 2006, food critics threw accolades at him harder than Tim Lincecum throws a two-seam fastball. I liked Begg’s food a lot, but I didn’t love it. Don’t get me wrong – the 25-year-old self-taught Begg was a phenom, with a smooth style beyond his years and lack of formal training. Begg was at his best with simpler dishes like the memorable Dungeness crab salad with crème fraîche, pink grapefruit, avocado mousse, radish, and frisee, and it was this less edgy part of his repertoire that earned Cafe Majestic a spot on my list of 11 best new Northside places to eat in 2007. But his food could also be messy, like his pork chop with Cognac and cider sauce with grilled scallions over a pile of too-chewy mustard spaetzle – the Cognac, cider and mustard all fought to be the star, while the pork chop got lost in the performance. It was that occasional muddled dish of Begg’s that made me look like the last kid chosen for dodge ball while all the other kids gave high-fives on the other side of the playground.
Then, over the summer, the multistarred, rising star, critic’s darling suddenly departed, taking general manager and sommelier Ryan Maxey and sous chef Sarn Saechao with him. Turns out, Begg wanted to take the team on a culinary tour of the world in preparation for opening his own restaurant in San Francisco in the future, but it left the Majestic in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. As they searched for a replacement, the critics were already rumbling about how any chef they chose, be it a seasoned veteran or another new kid on the butcher block, would have a very big pair of shoes to fill.
In October, the Hotel Majestic (which houses the Cafe Majestic) hired 27-year-old Louis Maldonado, an East Bay native who earned his culinary degree from the California Culinary Academy in 2002 and went to work as chef de partie at One Market. Just one year later, he helped launch the trendy lounge Cortez as co-executive chef and helped them earn a coveted Michelin star. When chef de cuisine Corey Lee tapped Maldonado for the chef de partie position at Yountville’s legendary French Laundry in 2007, it was an opportunity the young chef couldn’t turn down. He honed his craft developing the daily-changing tasting menus, focusing on the meat and fish.
My first experience with Maldonado felt a lot like my first experience with Joel Huff, one of my favorite young chefs who recently (and unexpectedly) left Silks at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel – I knew from the first bite that his talent was something special. Maldonado celebrates the simplest ingredients by turning them into something extraordinary. His signature dish, for me, is the crispy confit of chicken wings with Granny Smith apple puree, a scatter of Brussels sprouts leaves and little pearl onions ($12). Think of the best Chicken McNuggets you’ve ever had in your life: crispy, juicy, tender, and just salty enough.
Maldonado’s ability to elevate such common ingredients exceeds the sensibility of most young chefs – he knows how to take things just far enough. I remember a conversation I had with renowned chef David Kinch of Manresa where he said that a great chef doesn’t think about what more he can add to the plate, but what he can take away. This restrained style is often hard to find in young chefs trying to carve out their own niche; they just can’t help adding that mustard spaetzle. Not to say that Maldonado doesn’t dress things up; he includes underappreciated items like Fuyu persimmons and cardoons in decidedly understated roles, using his classical techniques to modernize the ubiquitous California Cuisine, but never losing his reverence for the fresh, seasonal bounty we are blessed with in the Bay Area.
Cubes of shimmering ruby-hued raw yellowfin tuna ($13) are dotted with fresh wasabi, which is always more pungent than the creamed stuff at most Japanese restaurants. Maldonado adds perilla (a member of the mint family), shaves of English cucumber, and crème fraîche to temper the heat and accentuate the mild flavor of the tuna.
Jerusalem artichoke soup ($9) is vegan, but emulsified to such a velvety texture it seems there must be heavy cream lurking in there somewhere. A tart nicoise olive crème fraîche and piment d’Espelette (a fruity, mild ground chili from the Labourd province of France) add a delicate complexity.
Silken chestnut mousse ($10) is baked in Feuille de brick (crisp, nonbuttery dough equivalent to filo) to resemble little stuffed cigars. They are arranged with charred chunks of smoky-sweet Fuyu persimmon, endive, and earthy black truffle.
I am not usually a fan of octopus, but my dining companion that evening, Bill “The Kitchenless Cook” Knutson, loves it, so with great reluctance, I ordered the Japanese octopus with marble potatoes, green curry, cardoons, and cilantro ($14) for him. It was unbelievably tender with a caramelized exterior, and Bill was lucky to get any. Cardoons, an Italian thistle, are only available from November through January and are hard to come by because knowledgeable cooks snap them up. The flavor, which reminds me of slightly bittersweet artichoke with hints of celery, is one of my favorites of the season.
Creamy faro ($12) was properly chewy and not too cheesy, cooked in chicken broth with just a touch of Parmesan and adorned with grilled baby leeks and honey-roasted garlic. The barley cradles a poached jidori egg (from a Japanese variety of chicken fed a vegan diet), which has that rich, grassy taste reminiscent of my friend Judy’s eggs on her farm near Gilroy, and a bright orange yoke that oozes around the bowl when pierced. It met my cooking standard for a poached egg – while the yoke was runny, the white was opaque. Nothing turns me off a poached egg faster than finding slimy goop resembling what I wipe from my pit bull’s eyes in the morning. The honey-roasted garlic was delicious, but seemed superfluous; it was the only ingredient on any of my three visits that I felt would have been better left off (or better yet, incorporated into a different dish).
For entrées, the highlights include grilled Colorado leg of lamb ($27) with an unctuous, crispy cube of belly, glazed ribettes that add a nice touch of sweetness, and rosy pink, tender slices that weren’t overly gamey; barley and salsify, another underutilized vegetable, accompany the lamb, with dried sour cherries standing up nicely to the strong flavor of the meat. The Pekin duck breast ($26) is also rosy-hued, medium-rare and tender, with roasted fairytale pumpkin puree that smacked of the chilly winter night outside, erbette chard, and a crispy pierogi filled with wild mushrooms. Another perfect winter dish, the braised short rib ($24) was meltingly soft, served with crisped Yukon Gold potatoes, broccolini, Cipollini onions, cheddar, and natural jus.
I expect a Quarter Pounder with Pork Belly to join the McTartare at McDonald’s any day now. What was once left to a breakfast of bacon and eggs or to cooks from other countries (like my Sicilian grandfather), who have long known its wonder in a fatty chunk with a salty, crackling top, pork belly has remained the ingredient du jour for the past several years, and there is no sign of it going away. Personally, that’s great news for me because I can’t get enough. I ate it as a kid, long before it appeared at high-end restaurants, and I will still be making it at home when it falls out of favor. Maldonado’s version ($14) is classic: fatty with that salty crackling top and served rustically beside slivers of tender artichokes and rectangles of crunchy, buttery country bread croutons. The pork belly comes from Vande Rose, a sustainable, humane family farm that has been committed to raising pure Duroc hogs for over a century. The award-winning artisan Vande Rose pork proves unequivocally that humane animal husbandry and refusing to take shortcuts does indeed make a difference.
For the budget conscious, Maldonado just introduced a market pre-fixe menu served from 5:30 to 7 p.m. that includes an amuse bouche and three courses for a reasonable $38.
Desserts are creative and approachable. The butternut squash and chicory “confit” ($9) makes you wonder why everyone isn’t using this wonderful gourd in desserts – accompanied by crème fraîche sherbet and cranberries, it was sublime. The kaffir lime granite ($9) was light and refreshing, with sweet milk sherbet, tapioca and graham cracker meringue.
Waiters know the menu and 100-plus selection wine list inside and out, but the service is understated, which works well in a room that rates among the very few in the City where you can hear yourself think or your date whisper sweet nothings.
The name of the restaurant, Cafe Majestic, is misleading, because there is nothing “cafe” about it. Located in the historic 1902 Hotel Majestic, it is a throwback to the grandness of old San Francisco. The extensive 2007 renovation smartly left the elegant touches intact, with cream-and-gold-tufted brocade chairs and booths, ornate chandeliers, etched windows, and cherubic ceiling medallions that echo the hotel’s Edwardian period. Two large, graceful porcelain greyhounds sit beside ornate columns that divide the two dining areas, keeping a watchful eye. On two visits we sat in the smaller, cozier side; on our third visit, one of the coldest nights San Francisco has seen in years, the normally warm room gave me the chills. Perhaps it was our booth (in the back by the bathrooms, far from the graceful greyhounds), or the fact we were eating late (having had a couple of cocktails celebrating a friend’s birthday in the Butterfly Bar); whatever the reason, I kept my date’s coat over my shoulders throughout the meal. That night was an anomaly, though, because on every other visit, the dining room has transported me to a classier, old-fashioned era with just the right contemporary amenities.
Maldonado’s demeanor is refreshingly old school, too – while publicity may seek him out, he’s not likely to go searching for it. Like Gary Danko, Roland Passot and Thomas Keller (before he was crowned King of the Mall with his chain of bakeries), Maldonado got into cooking because he loves the craft. While his handsome appearance and genuine charm lend themselves to television, I get the feeling that being the next Guy Fieri hawking T.G.I. Friday’s Jack Daniel’s ribs isn’t really part of his long-term goals. While I have no doubt, in this age of celebrity chefs, that Maldonado will have a tough time staying out of the limelight (Bravo’s Top Chef has already sniffed around), they may have to drag him kicking and screaming from behind the hot stoves of his surprisingly small kitchen.
Maldonado reminds me of Joel Huff in many ways, from working in a small hotel restaurant kitchen to taking apparently uncomplicated dishes and making them uniquely his own. He also shares the uncanny ability to make those dishes look a lot simpler than they really are. Like Huff, Maldonado seems wise beyond his years both in technique and style. But Huff knew a winner when he saw it – the bacon, eggs and toast remained a fixture on his menu because diners came to Silk’s for his food, not for the scene, the hip crowd, or the fancy cocktails (none of which Silks offered). I hope Maldonado has the confidence in his choices that Huff had in his and leaves the gems on the menu so that diners won’t be disappointed, like I was on my third visit when the addictive crispy confit of chicken wings were nowhere to be found. I’m all for seasonal changes, but I think San Francisco chefs have begun to think they have to mix it up on a nightly basis to keep the ADD-afflicted foodies happy. That may be the case with a lesser talent, but many of Maldonado’s dishes are classics and deserve the respect of a permanent spot in the rotation.
My recent meals at Cafe Majestic were some of the most memorable I had in all of 2008. If you’ve been staying away because Ian Begg left, don’t – Maldonado doesn’t just fill his shoes, he needs a bigger pair.
Cafe Majestic: 1500 Sutter Street (at Gough) in the Hotel Majestic, 415-441-1280, www.cafemajesticsf.com