A Casual Place as Cool as the Name Suggests
Chef David Nayfeld is a Bay Area native who, after four years at Eleven Madison Park in New York and a year in Europe, has returned home. His time away, he said, helped make clear the kind of restaurant he did, and did not, want to open.Posted — Updated
Chef David Nayfeld is a Bay Area native who, after four years at Eleven Madison Park in New York and a year in Europe, has returned home. His time away, he said, helped make clear the kind of restaurant he did, and did not, want to open.
“I want this to be a casual neighborhood restaurant, not somewhere posh and Michelin-starred,” he explained. “I want this be a place where you come in to eat good food; where my mom and her friends can come in.”
His mom’s friends may well come in to Che Fico, but likely will have to line up to do so — the chef’s high-profile resume and the four-year waiting period that preceded the restaurant’s March opening made for a proper hype machine, quickly fueled by visits from Gwyneth Paltrow and Anderson Cooper.
Reservations are hard to come by, but those willing to wait in the early-evening line — as I did on a recent Wednesday — are quickly rewarded with one of the 48 seats reserved for walk-ins.
Hype aside, Che Fico delivers on Nayfeld’s mission. The second-story space is light-filled and expansive, with an open kitchen showcasing a wood-fired pizza oven (nicknamed Loretta) and fig-festooned wallpaper — Che Fico translates to “what a fig,” slang for “that’s so cool!” As I sipped on an herbaceous, gin-based Coriander cocktail, I noted the soundtrack — the Talking Heads faded into Mos Def before switching to Bob Marley and The Cure. Pretty cool.
Having secured a pair of window seats, my date and I dove into the menu — all dishes are meant to be enjoyed family style, including a worthwhile antipasti of wood-fired octopus with crisp-edged cubes of melty pork belly. The menu evolves to highlight seasonality — like an excellent summer vegetable salad featuring fresh mozzarella, stone fruitsand blossom-topped zucchini — but remains consistent enough to feel familiar to regulars.
Familiarity explains a section dedicated to la cucina ebraica, or Jewish cooking — a nod to Nayfeld’s roots (his parents immigrated to California from the Soviet Union via Rome in 1980). The grilled, chopped duck liver, topped with Technicolor pickled onions and paper-thin turnip slices, is rich and luscious enough to create a new generation of offal lovers.
Fresh pastas, made in-house, are standouts: We tried a perfectly al dente cappelletti filled with caciocavallo cheese and topped with sweet fava beans and morel mushrooms. Pizzas have proved to be more controversial; made using a wild sourdough starter, crusts are cooked to a brown-black char. I place myself squarely in the pro-crust camp: Our pie, studded with chunks of fresh sausage and topped with a flurry of thinly shaved raw mushrooms, had a pleasantly just-caramelized flavor.
Secondi are bacchanalian in scale and serve two, at least; a platter of wood-grilled Marin Sun Farms pork included ample hunks of fatty chop and belly, crisp-fried skin, roasted onions, pickled cherries and a bowl of greens dressed with pickling liquid to be eaten with your hands as a palate cleanser.
Or you could save room for Angela Pinkerton’s desserts. The pastry chef, a fellow Eleven Madison Park alum, has created a menu of Italian-leaning sweets centered on seasonal fruit, including a toothsome olive oil cake topped with fresh strawberries and house-made elderflower gelato. (Pinkerton is at the helm of the casual dinette, Theorita, which is scheduled to open downstairs this week.)
That’s the real mark of Che Fico’s neighborhood restaurant status, though: It’s suited to celebratory groups sharing a whole lamb loin and solo diners enjoying a glass of funky aglianico and hand-cut tagliatelle al ragù at the bar alike. Che fico indeed.
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