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.

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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.

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

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