Elite-ism Is a Virtue

After a brief absence, the 35-year-old Elite Cafe on Fillmore is back, with a New Orleans-centric menu.

Although it’s been two full years since the feeling that “everything in San Francisco is closing so everything sucks now” peaked, when places that close later reopen, it’s still cause for celebration even if that was the plan all along. We’ve lost too many wonderful bars and restaurants to leave anything to chance.

I’m going to say that The Elite Cafe — which, like me, popped into the world in 1981 — has been around long enough to wheeze a sigh of relief now that it’s back up and running, having been purchased by Sidecar Hospitality. The team that owns Press Club, Schroeder’s, and — probably most significantly — Pacific Cocktail Haven has made minor adjustments here and major changes there, and the result is what might best be described by the oxymoron “fresh classic.” Balancing respect for neighborhood tradition against all the improvements in what it means to dine out, the current iteration of the Elite Cafe did it right.

Let’s start with the decor. It’s largely gray, but a warm gray. The combination of the friezes, the tiled floor, and the see-through curtain in front of the kitchen evoke yesteryear in a restrained way, unlike, say, the Ice Cream Bar in Cole Valley (which I also love). On the exterior, they kept the neon sign — blade, technically — that’s as gaudy and fantastic as any single-screen movie palace’s marquee. And they kept the line of booths and their pine-cone finials. They feel a little churchy, like confessionals, and retain some semblance of privacy without closing themselves all the way off like a European train compartment. (That would read badly, like a VIP section that we proles are forbidden from laying eyes on.) Incidentally, it is from one of them that I watched the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, so I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life that I was eating gumbo and jambalaya, too.

That’s because this version of the Elite Cafe re-centers itself over New Orleans and zooms in. Gone are the Mt. Lassen trout, the ricotta cavatelli, and the hearts of romaine. Even the fried green tomatoes and cast-iron cornbread went kaput. Instead, there are “Deviled” eggs Luziane, stewed okra, and a black drum Pontchartrain. The Meetinghouse Biscuits are still there — I’m told the new owners wisely purchased the recipe — and the kitchen doubled down on the biscuit concept by adding a few additional kinds: ham hock, fried chicken, and blackened catfish. The ham hock in particular (two for $12) is great, like an Egg McMuffin that swelled to twice its size and with ham that approximates corned beef, mixed with gooey chipotle cheddar and nectarine compote in lieu of Mickey D’s filling.

Ditto the spicy muffaletta chopped salad ($10/$17), a riff on what’s arguably the trendiest export from Tchoupitoulas Street. A half-portion is enough for two to share, and while the breadsticks are forgettable, it’s a satisfying combination of meats and cheeses over iceberg. Throw on a little more of Elite Cafe’s proprietary hot sauce and you’re set.

You’ll likely need that heat on the spicy mushrooms and crispy chickpeas ($7), which otherwise get maximum traction out of the contrast of textures. (If I say that the chickpeas feel like a Trader Joe’s snack, it could sound damning, but I mean it as praise, because they’re that addicting.) Fried okra ($8) gets reimagined with vadouvan and a cucumber raita, and cured though they are, the okra, cauliflower, and carrots in the unfailingly excellent pickle plate ($6) are a must to separate all the cured and stewed meats to come.

Okra shows up a lot, actually. I’m good with that, but if there’s a difficulty to dining here, it’s that the joy of NOLA delicacies can make things bleed together if you’re not careful. The ham hock and muffaletta, for instance, don’t consist of similar ingredients, but the dominant notes in each are salt and fat — and unlike barbecue, where the various meats have distinct textures, stews are stews. Make sure to break it up with entrees like the Schmitz Ranch pork porterhouse ($27), a paradigmatic meat-and-three whose apple barbecue glaze is enough to fight over who gets the bone. (The black-eyed pea succotash is great, an earthy counterpoint.)

Portions are hefty, but the best bet — when sharing, anyway — is to get the NOLA Sampler, a $21 choice of three of the following five staples: stewed okra, red beans and rice, and the trio of Louisiana’s famous stews, gumbo, chicken jambalaya, and crawfish étouffée. Normally, I prefer it for the filé powder’s earthiness, but the gumbo was the Carreras to the jambalaya’s Pavarotti and the étouffée’s Domingo. It just faded into the background, whereas the jambalaya’s base of chicken confit and the étouffée’s incorporation of uni butter gave each a leg up in richness. (About that uni butter: Southern Decadence has breached the levee.)

I’ve found myself gravitating away from dessert recently, but there was no question that Elite’s offerings are as appealing as a rotating pie rack in a bayou roadhouse. The fat slab of Meyer lemon ice box pie ($7) reminded my boyfriend of what his Texan-born mother made all his life, and the Fernet chocolate cheesecake ($8) is among the most sophisticated flavors I’ve tasted in a long time. If you crave an after-dinner amaro but hunger for sweetness too, you’re solid.

One thing to remember about the Elite Cafe is that it’s not merely a restaurant; it’s also a bar. It’s open until 2 a.m. nightly, four hours after the kitchen transitions to a bar menu, and Pacific Cocktail Haven’s veteran restaurant-opener Kevin Diedrich had a hand in the cocktail list.

Whet your palate with the International Smoke ($13), an elegant party-time mix of Suntory Toki Japanese whisky, citrus, coconut, bitters, and an Islay float. There’s also a passion fruit-heavy Hurricane ($13) that’s not one of those drinks served in a neon plastic thermometer bulb for walking down Conti Street. Served in a tall glass, almost like a milkshake, and garlanded with a flower, it tastes like you’re lounging in the Dominican Republic. Less self-conscious still, the frozen Irish coffee ($13) mimics a mudslide with its combination of Tullamore Dew, orgeat, and cold-brew coffee. But you can always stay true to your mixological krewe with a Sazerac or some clarified milk punch.

Like the nine-month-old Black Bark BBQ seven blocks down Fillmore, I get the feeling the Elite Cafe wants to anchor itself in the neighborhood, settling into a sense of itself as an institution. You’re going to want to eat here with a big group, half Southerners and half locals, and hear them talk about what this or that reminds them of. So join the Elite. It’s never been easier.

The Elite Cafe 2049 Fillmore St. 415-346-8400 or theelitecafe.com

Hours: Mon-Fri, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. (Kitchen closes at 10 p.m.); Sat-Sun, 9 a.m.-2 a.m. (Kitchen closes from 2-5 p.m. and again at 10 p.m.)

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