A delicious New Orleans-inspired secret on Fillmore
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How too perfect that we find the Elite Café smack in the heart of Pacific Heights. Since Pacific Heights is full of ... well, you know. "Elite," I have noticed, is a word that has acquired a sheen of infamy in our demotic times and, along with its close relation, "elitist," is often spoken in a tone of hissing accusation, like "monarchist" or "communist." Yet there is no Monarchist Café, not even in Pacific Heights, and even if there were, its food would likely not be as good as Elite Café's.
The Elite Café has been in business since 1981, but a few years ago it fell into the hands of Peter Snyderman and Joanna Karlinsky, who have each been a neighborhood force in recent years. Snyderman was a principal in the Fillmore Grill and Alta Plaza once the last word in A-list gay bars while Karlinsky was the owner (with John Bryant Snell) of the Meetinghouse, a marvelous restaurant that foundered in the aftermath of 9/11. Its atmospheric setting, a onetime apothecary shop, later became the home of Quince, but now Quince is moving downtown. Meanwhile Karlinsky, after tours at the Hotel Utah and, very briefly, Moose's, has come back to upper Fillmore, bringing to the Elite Café the Meetinghouse's wondrously flaky biscuits and signature shrimp-and-scallop johnnycakes.
More than 20 years ago, I had dinner at the Elite Café with a few friends and came away with the impression that it was basically a seafood grill in the old-line style of Sam's and Tadich. Certainly it looked the part, with a long bar along one wall and, along the other, a train of remarkably enveloping wooden booths that conferred a strong sense of privacy. But according to the restaurant's Web site, it was and remains a purveyor of New Orleansinfluenced cooking. Possibly my younger self wasn't paying proper attention. Yet today's look, while freshened, is pretty much the same as it was then, and the menu, while unmistakably touched by the flavors of coastal Louisiana, still offers plenty of seafood options.
Karlinsky, the consulting chef, deals in (choose your label) modern or new American cooking, ingredient-driven and seasonal, which helps explain the presence of the biscuits ($4.75 for four) and johnnycakes ($12.50) the cakes positively gravid with shrimp, festively piped with lime cream, and served with a coarse compote of roasted peppers. These dishes aren't out of place on Elite's menu, but they were just as nice on that of the Meetinghouse, whose accent was hardly southern. ("Meetinghouse," incidentally or perhaps not incidentally was the term used by colonial New Englanders for "church.")
But ... Elite's menu is replete with New Orleansish offerings you wouldn't likely have seen at any of Karlinsky's other restaurants. These range from standards such as jambalaya and gumbo both solid to a clever "fondue" of crab meat and puréed artichoke you scoop from the cast-iron pan with points of oh-so-San Francisco sourdough toast.
Let us begin with the gumbo, which can be had in three sizes. The smallest (at $10.75) is apparently a starter the dish is listed among the starters as "California seafood gumbo" while the bigger sizes are meant for bigger appetites. It's possible that the largest, at $25.50, is meant for parties or family-style service, since the midsize version, at $21.50, was presented in a hemispherical bowl I could have dunked my head into. The gumbo was chockablock with shrimp, scallops, crab, and oysters whose liquor added a distinct note of earthy minerality but what was most notable (apart from the size of the bowl) was the broth, which was as rich and muddy as the Mississippi itself. Floating around in there, along with the seafood, were strips of red pepper and okra and grains of rice, but all this substance was somehow secondary to the tasty murk it was suspended in.
Jambalaya is also available in more than one size, but here the downsized version ($18.50) seemed rather niggardly: a small cast-iron pan filled with shrimp, chunks of andouille sausage, shreds of duck confit, and a token sprinkling of rice. I would pronounce this dish a disappointment were it not for the confit, whose dark and glossy richness was redemptive.
Blackened redfish ($26) that Paul Prudhomme classic from the 1980s is made with real Gulf redfish and is worth the carbon-footprint penalty points. There is a local fish, sold under the name red snapper but actually a kind of rockfish, that also has reddish flesh and is sometimes substituted in these sorts of dishes, but it's no match for the buttery intensity of the Gulf variety. The kitchen does give the dish a distinctly California elaboration, though, with a salad of fennel ribbons, quartered artichoke hearts, fresh green peas, salsify, asparagus, and roasted red-pepper coulis.
Cajun fries ($4.75) could have been a little crisper, I thought, and were underseasoned, but they were served with a chipotle mayonnaise that was like silky fire. Even simpler were spicy collard greens ($5.25), slow-cooked to a deep, gleaming green and deeply satisfying. This might be the most authentically Cajun dish on the menu and also, in its direct simplicity, the most Californian.
Despite a long presence (the restaurant's predecessor, Lincoln Grill, opened at the Fillmore Street location in 1928) and an attention-getting name, the Elite Café seems slightly anonymous at the moment. When people think about New Orleans food in San Francisco, they think about other, newer places, and more power to them. Let the Elite Café remain a secret for the happy few.
Dinner: Mon.Thurs., 610 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 610:30 p.m.; Sun., 59 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.Sun., 10 a.m.2:30 p.m.
2049 Fillmore, SF