Chef Joseph Humphrey and his partners were hoping to have their Dixie restaurant open in the former Pres a Vi spot in San Francisco’s Presidio by Thanksgiving. Now it’s 2012 and he’s still waiting for the permitting to clear (it is on federal property).
So itching to get back into the kitchen, Humphrey is cooking at Guest Chef, a concept restaurant that opened in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood last fall. Guest Chef is a permanent space for temporary restaurants by giving chefs a place to pop-up and cook for a limited engagement.
Humphrey, formerly of Cavallo Point’s Murray Circle, brings the most pedigree to the Guest Chef kitchen since it opened. So after weeks of checking out the guest chef list, I decided to drop in for dinner last week.
The Guest Chef space, formerly a women’s boutique, is quite small, resembling almost a sushi bar. I sat at the counter seat facing the tiny open kitchen.
During Humphrey’s two-week stint (he’s there till Jan. 15), the chef has created menus changing every few days, highlighting his emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients presented in a French-cooking style with hints of his Southern upbringing.
The Guest Chef menus offer a prix fixe two-course dinner for $35 or a tasting menu (basically the entire limited menu) for $55. Wanting to try everything, I opted for the tasting menu, naturally.
Since there’s a Southern twist (the chef grew up in Florida near the Georgia border), you can bet there would be a few deep-fried foods. I mention this because some of you know my aversion to deep-fried foods. But before you go crazy in the comments section, I note that 1) I have an aversion to deep-fried foods but that doesn’t mean I have a ban on deep-fried foods, I just limit how much of it I eat, and 2) since this is a tasting menu, the offerings were smaller.
Luckily, the deep-fried aspects only appear in an amuse bouche of hushpuppies and a true Southern soul offering of chicken fried quail. Oh, and a few duck cracklings that appeared in another amuse of deviled eggs.
Some of the dishes presented by Humphrey demonstrated what I’m guessing is the limitation of working in a kitchen that you’re not used to and a smaller one to boot. I’m referring to the sheen of oil under the fried hushpuppies and some thickness in some of the sauces, all adding to a rough-around-the-edges feel to an otherwise sophisticated approach.
But in general, the preview of Dixie promises an imaginative interpretation of what’s Californian and what’s Southern through Humphrey’s lens honed through years of working at fine-dining restaurants. Dishes are always presented beautifully and will likely introduce diners to some creative ingredients like the sassafras used to dust the halibut or sea urchin in the remoulade.
The imagination also comes in the techniques used to create the dishes, such as a beet that was hollowed out and stuffed with its own greens and a deconstructed key lime pie served for dessert that concentrated all the best of pie in the three elements of a graham cracker crust, key lime flavored granita and cream sauce.
With Dixie, Humphrey will be the head of his own restaurant for the first time in his career, and his menu demonstrates that it’ll be a sophisticated but personal experience.
Guest Chef also holds a lot of promise, if it’s able to bring in preview dinners for such projects like Dixie. Or even if it brings in a totally unknown chef, who wants to, for once in the chef’s career, step into the limelight.
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