Good luck with that, chef. In a city that mints tasting menus like the Treasury Department prints Lincolns and Franklins, Che Fico, introduced in April, has emerged as a gratifying alternative to the many places where a chef decides what you’ll be eating. Already, insiders have referred to the newcomer as the successor to such vaunted but accessible labels as Delfina and Zuni Cafe. All I know as I reach the top of the stairs, having stood in line for 30 minutes, is that designer Jon de la Cruz has done a fabulous job of turning an auto body shop into a groovy dining room. And the food I see passing by me as I settle in at the zinc bar — blistered pizzas with Alpine crowns, salads that could pass for color wheels — looks like poetry in motion.
Che Fico, Instagrammed by Anderson Cooper and Gwyneth Paltrow, literally translates from Italian as “what a fig.” As slang, it means, “that’s so cool.”
The name is a perfect fit. Summer vegetable insalata gathers baby nectarines, apricots, green and yellow beans, purple snow peas and creamy mozzarella inside a lasso of lemon verbena puree. “Everything that looks good at the market goes on the plate,” says the chef of the ever-changing salad, a humblebrag demonstrating that few states have it as good as California when it comes to produce. Agnolotti tinted with green garlic, stuffed with braised lamb and scattered with sweet English peas and curls of Sardinian cheese is just as life-affirming.
Che Fico was four years in the making — hey, it takes time to find a location that calls to you! The key to understanding its runaway success lies in the words the 34-year-old Nayfeld uses to describe himself as a child of Jewish immigrant parents growing up in nearby Alameda: “rambunctious,” he says. “I was a troublemaker,” whose high-octane style was encouraged by a “bruiser” father from Belarus. Stand your ground, the youngster was taught.
Just look at his pizza. Sprung from a sourdough starter and incorporating whole grains from the West Coast, the pie is the opposite of what he learned to bake in Naples: Much of the crust is the color of coal. Nayfeld jokes that he studied abroad “just so I could break all the rules and have people hate my pizza.” Except a lot of us don’t. While the crust is baked-till-black, the char complements the tang of sourdough and the grated Parmesan that finishes the shell. (The chef refers to the high-rise lips as a “calling card: Don’t forget to eat your crust.”)
I devour the pizza, bones and all, slathered with tangy marinara sauce and finished with a blizzard of ricotta salata. It’s a tribute to the late, great Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe, whose simple, superb food Nayfeld ate when he was a poor cook at Aqua restaurant, closed in 2010 but once the city’s premiere seafood destination. “People need to know her name,” the chef says of Rodgers, one of the pioneers of California cuisine. If they didn’t already, thanks to the shout-out on his menu, 350 or so diners a night do now.
A corner of the menu is devoted to “cucina ebraica,” the food of once-segregated Italian Jews in Rome, where the chef’s parents bided their time before coming to America. Folds of beef tongue festooned with fried capers, mustard seeds, cool celery leaves and salsa verde have me eating in some fantasy corner of Italy.
But even routine-sounding dishes are compelling. Brined chicken cooked over a fire fed by almond and oak, then brushed with a combination of Calabrian chilies, honey and red-wine vinegar, makes for a short-lived entree. The swooning continues with a side of soft polenta, made on my visit with heirloom Oaxacan green dent corn, prized for its emerald kernels and deep flavor.
Knowing where Nayfeld cooked, in the United States and abroad, explains the success of the warmhearted taverna he now leads. Aqua left him with an appreciation for speed, he says. Joël Robuchon at the Mansion at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which the chef helped open in 2005, was a case study in classic sauce-making and “pristine perfection.” Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, the recipient of a rare four stars from the New York Times, encouraged the chef to “look at the dining room as equally important” as the kitchen. At Mirazur in the French Riviera, Nayfeld says, the menu was decided more or less on the spot, in the garden and as the fishermen arrived with the day’s catch.
The raftered, skylit interior at Che Fico is unlike any other now playing in San Francisco. Mason jars and Edison lightbulbs are nowhere in sight. Instead of covering up the building’s past — its concrete floors and walls — the owners softened the canvas with the use of color. The right wall of the stairs leading up to the second-floor restaurant, for instance, dazzles diners with figgy wallpaper and porthole-like mirrors. And the center of the room draws eyes to a glass-encased red salumi room.
Every aspect of the meal has me whispering “che fico” to my countermate. The drinks, some based on herbs, include such intrigues as Milk Punch, a pale golden elixir whipped up with pineapple, banana, hot long pepper, cinnamon and cognac — fruity but not sweet. “The pastry chef is from Eleven Madison,” a server says. As sated as we are, we’re nudged to try the handiwork of Angela Pinkerton. Her Pavlova, sublime blueberry sorbet resting on a pedestal of crisp coffee meringue, is definitely worth loosening the belt. So as to make bill-settling less of a business transaction and more of a “thanks for coming,” the check is accompanied by slices of whatever fruit looked perfect that day: plums, in my case, sprinkled with Espelette pepper (grown at the family ranch of co-owner Matt Brewer) and displayed on shaved ice.
Guess my reaction.
838 Divisadero St., San Francisco. 415-416-6959; chefico.com. Pizza, pasta and entrees, $18 to $44.
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