Cafe Majestic


~CAFE MAJESTIC~ has been getting a ton of buzz lately--the publicist has been doing her job for sure, but it's also because there is some talent simmering in the kitchen: Ian Begg. He's worked under Todd Humphries at the Wine Spectator Restaurant at Greystone in Napa, plus at Casa Orinda, Hawthorne Lane (recently re-christened TWO), and the now-closed Vignette. in the Orchard Hotel, where he worked with Café Majestic's affable GM, Ryan Maxey, who is also making his mark here.

The restaurant is tucked inside the historic Hotel Majestic, a 1902 building that is San Francisco's oldest continually operating hotel, for those of you who geek out on factoids like I do. The hotel is reportedly haunted by a ghost who hangs out on the fourth floor. (Not sure if there's a discount if you stay on that floor.) The restaurant (and its kitchen) just finished a major renovation--try four years of closure, clocking in at a cost of one mil.

It's a little confusing as you try to make your way to the restaurant because there isn't much of a host stand--you just suddenly arrive in the bar. Cocktailians around town used to know about the Butterfly Bar, not because there is a hidden correlation between a love of drinks and butterflies, but because it's where former bartender Tim Stookey was gaining a fan club for his fab drinks (you will now find him rocking it at Presidio Social Club).

The dining room is downright breathtaking, an oasis of class. It's like a creamy wedding cake, sporting a fun mix of refinement and glam: there are elegant curving chairs and sweeping booths that are heavily upholstered with button-tufted backs, while a pair of large high-gloss white porcelain greyhounds keep watch over the room, and lollipop topiaries keep the tone light. The prettily lit room is infused with elements from the 20s, like a gorg mirror with gold sun-like spikes and vintage line drawings on the walls (don't miss the Paul Iribe lithos in the bathroom). I might be wrong, but I feel like the decorator, who hails from Kansas City, is one swell swishy homo. I salute him--he totally swanked the room right.

Attention all you well-heeled brides-to-be looking for a place to buy out for a reception dinner--this joint is it.

When I dined here back in May, it was totally, utterly empty. Crickets. There were only two other tables having dinner. Which felt crazy. Like, how could this gorgeous room be so vacant? Was the ghost freaking people out? Was there a SARS alert I missed? Are you my mommy?

Well, now that the restaurant got the three thumbs up from Michael Bauer, I imagine business has picked up nicely. The setting is ideal for a romantic dinner (or perhaps dinner with a great aunt who is hard of hearing--she will appreciate the quiet calm). One bump in the romance/perfect for hard-of-hearing great aunt factor is the noise from the bar can carry too much into the dining room.

Begg's Cal-French cooking is elegant and flavorful, and for someone who is all of 25 years old, he definitely has some innovative flair, but happily knows just how far to push it. We went deep into the cream of mushroom soup ($10) that was luxuriously full of morels, hen-of-the-woods, and trumpet mushrooms, proudly served in a house of puff pastry. It's also quite massive, so put that spoon down at some point if you plan on making it through your main. Put it down. Stop. Put. It. Down!

The beef tartare ($12), made with Creekstone Farms flank steak and topped with a quail egg, offered a nice spin off from the usual ingredients, with hints of shiso, pickled mushrooms, and smoked chili and basil oils. The fragile waffle chips couldn't quite hold up to the tartare, but still added a good salty crunch.

We also test-drove the fried grit cake ($19) for you vegetarians out there. While this dish desperately needs a new name (although nothing needs a new name more than this joint), it was savory and satisfying, permeated with Parmigiano, and topped with favas, mushrooms, and a tasty hint of Marsala in the sauce. One foul: the fiddlehead ferns were too crispy, but the crisp of the cake was right on.

Mains included four seafood and four meat choices--we tried the grilled rare Hawaiian ono ($28), a hearty portion of slices piled atop a pool of sea urchin cream (made from the roe), plus sautéed pea shoots, green garlic, and a hit of chili oil that managed to not overwhelm the dish.

The grilled veal chop ($29) was a man-size chop that would be right at home at the Renaissance Faire. This dish was less successful--the meat was overcooked and under-seasoned, and the sweetbreads were too heavily coated. However, we totally loved the buttery purple potatoes and cabernet sauce. Begg is totally a sauce man--in fact, all the sauces we tried were quite commendable.

The intermezzo of thyme and pineapple sorbet was a fun burst of flavor--oh, and the chef sends out an amuse at the beginning of the meal, too. The sorbet inspired us to try the coconut sorbet ($7) for dessert--it was more creamy than icy, and blended dreamily with the passion fruit "soup" and dots of basil oil. Also tried the über-minty chocolate boca negra ($8), a Napoleonic tower of a crunchy and brownie-ish cake, with a steeped-mint gelato and hazelnut anglaise--it was a bit much, but commendable for a chef doing his own desserts.

A note on the wine list: it's mostly pricey. The least expensive bottle of bubbles is a $39 prosecco (a Bisol Prosecco Crede Spumante Brut, Veneto, NV), and the majority of the reds are $45 and up, so don't expect to get away with a bottle for much less. GM Ryan Maxey does make good suggestions, so be sure to engage him if you like talking vino.

Since I was happy with dinner and fell so hard for the room, I was rapidly envisioning it as my new super-swank brunch HQ. Not so fast. Unfortunately, the smoked salmon ($12) with potato flatbread came with overcooked poached eggs, and the wild mushroom omelet ($11) was overwhelmed with a sea of melted Brie--too rich, even for me. I also had one of the worst cappuccinos in recent memory, but fortunately they noticed I wasn't drinking it and promptly did a re-do.

I do hope things get straightened out, because most of the brunch items are only $11-$12, a total steal considering the elegance of the setting. Service was also a little shaky: our brunch server, while very sweet, was as green as a Pippin apple. All in all, the brunch experience was kind of like waking up with your one-night stand who was much hotter the night before. But to continue the analogy, based on the (mostly) impressive dinner experience, I'd still give the guy my number. Maybe even with a little lipstick kiss.

Cafe Majestic
1500 Sutter St.
Cross: Gough St.
San Francisco, CA 94109


Tue-Sat 5:30pm-10pm
Breakfast daily 6:30am-11am
Sun brunch 11:30am-2pm

Apps $7-$17
Entrées $17-$29
Desserts $7-$12

1500 Sutter St. San Francisco
(at Gough St.)