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Chef Jeffrey Amber shows off a plate of Thai snapper with summer squash and heirloom tomatoes resting on coulis sauce at Gigi, his new restaurant in Lafayette.
A basket of gnarly heirloom tomatoes graced Gigi's antique wood bar heading into the busy Labor Day weekend. By Tuesday, the symbolic end of summer, the local display had turned into buttery, russet-splotched, dry-farmed Bartlett pears from Alhambra Valley Farms in Martinez.

The opening menu -- Gigi is just 7 weeks old -- is beginning to shift, reflecting the first blush of autumn. Those pears recently took the place of peaches in Gigi's popular salad of almonds and ricotta salata. But the pace of change is as slow as the season.

Jeff Amber left his job as executive chef of the Chow chain (two in S.F. and one in Lafayette) to open little Gigi, named after his daughter. Fewer seats not only allows for hotter, crispier fries; it creates room for sophistication and flexibility.

But despite wanting to ease into this creative new environment, Amber's restaurant opened hot out of the gate -- rarely has a Contra Costa eatery generated such interest. They're already doing 150 lunches out of a tiny kitchen -- prepping as fast as they cook.

So Amber's focus has been on keeping the ship steady, and making sure his young staff can pronounce and knows the difference between a coulis and a tuile. "At this point," Amber says, "I just want to make sure people are well-versed on where we're coming from."

Amber, whose background before Chow ranged from "fine dining to extreme fine dining," is now making food with the spirit of a market-inspired weeknight meal. His dishes don't blow you away so much as nourish you.


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Like Chez Panisse, it's the kind of menu that needs to change in order to stay vital. And not only for novelty's sake, but, in the long run, to keep the staff energized.

With the help of Amber's longtime friend and general manager Roxanne Logan, who has overseen all the Chow restaurants, the staff was quickly able to establish a rhythm -- despite the early crush of customers. For a restaurant that operated for 33 years as Kaffee Barbara, having a relaxed, cohesive staff (a third of which came from Chow) is reassuring to old customers.

Lunching on the sprawling, brick patio in this fair weather is a delight, but you do miss out on the contemporary feel captured in, of all places, an 85-year-old cottage. Natural light, redwood beams and a giant communal table of black walnut create an inviting, energetic entrance, while the unadorned walls put the focus on Amber's plates, where it belongs.

Crispy Local Cod ($16 at lunch, $18 at dinner) starts with a pair of silky tomato purees, as rich in tone as flavor. A pile of caramelized corn, basil leaves and bittersweet pattypan squash prop up the muscular chunks of seared cod. A more supple fish might work better, but the dish sings of summer.

The globe squash stuffed with shrimp ($10) has such vivid color, it appears to be raw. But it slices beautifully, providing a meaty background for sweet shellfish splashed with a creamy tarragon broth fortified with corn stock.

Amber has a way with seafood. The most impressive was the ubiquitous seared tuna ($20), which appears to have been "cooked" from a 2-second dip in hot water. The supple pink flesh is presented in isosceles triangles over warm Israeli couscous -- chewy BB-sized grains slick with olive oil. Particularly stunning was a bite of herb salad, unleashing a minty blast of shiso leaf.

Our rib-eye steak ($26) was nearly as raw -- not surprising, as it was served as a block, like those top-sirloin baseball cuts of yore. The quality was excellent, but if cooked a little more, the steak would have a texture much better suited to the cool heirloom tomatoes and chunks of blue cheese.

The pork tenderloin ($19) had a taste that put me in mind, not unpleasantly, of an In-N-Out burger -- the flavor you get from searing on hot, ungreased surfaces. The meat was a bit dry, too, despite a pink center.

Even the G-Burger ($10) wasn't as juicy as I had hoped for, though the bun and garnishes were first-rate, and the tangle of fries, fresh from the fryer, were killer.

I shared the burger with a friend at lunch out on the patio. We started with a gigantic bowl of warm olives ($5) and, like every meal at Gigi, finished with a free piece of fudge wrapped in parchment, like toffee. Our other entree, a Parmesan Omelet ($10), was golden and buttery, but neither as soft nor as redolent of cheese as I would have hoped. 

Service on all my visits has been attentive and eager (one waiter practically insisted that we get the side of fries rather than salad). But it hasn't been particularly polished or well-informed. When I asked where the "local" tuna was from -- all the fish are listed as local -- one waiter said a company in San Francisco, and another told me Monterey Fish Company, a great purveyor to be sure. But the tuna, it turns out, is ahi from Hawaii.

It's a compelling dinner menu, with items innovative and familiar. One night we started with Lobster Carbonara ($13) and Crispy Chicken Livers ($10), both of which were tasty, but heavier than I imagined. The lukewarm pasta was such a mass of parmesan, bacon and egg that the lobster, served in chunks, couldn't find a way in. And the musky livers overpowered the delicate fruit.

The food here is way above average, with careful presentations and a wholesome appeal. But its power comes more from fine ingredients than refined technique or a coy interplay of flavors.

The desserts ($7) were a success. A modern Peach Melba puts a scoop of gelato in the center of a poached, skinless peach half; a thick vanilla Panna Cotta is spiked with dark cherries; and the pile of fried squiggles in the Funnel Cake comes with a side of thick and sticky caramel sauce.

It's doubtful Gigi will have a 30-year run like its predecessor, but it could if Amber wished it so. He got more business than he bargained for when he opened up what he imagined would be a calm, neighborhood restaurant.

In order to satisfy the demand, Amber plans to install an awning over the patio before the rain and wind become too menacing. But with the kitchen already going full tilt from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., he doesn't have any plans to open for breakfast, as much as Kaffee Barbara fans urge him on.

It's enough of a challenge to get back to the business of tweaking the menu to fit the season.

Reach Times Food editor Nicholas Boer at 925-943-8254 or nboer@bayareanewsgroup.com.

GIGI

*** out of ****

  • FOOD: ***

  • AMBIENCE: **1/2

  • SERVICE: **1/2

  • WHERE: 1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette.

  • CONTACT: 925-962-0882.

  • HOURS: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (closes at 9 p.m. on Sundays).

  • CUISINE: California.

  • PRICES: $$. Dinner entrees $10-$22.

  • VEGETARIAN: Entrees by request. Stuffed globe squash spiked with herbs and served with tomato coulis is an example.

  • BEVERAGES: International, affordable wine list with many selections from smaller wineries.

  • RESERVATIONS: Suggested, especially for larger parties (rarely can they accommodate tables of more than eight). Communal table and bar area are great for singles and drop-ins.

  • NOISE LEVEL: Despite deep carpets, the small space inevitably gets loud when busy, making conversation difficult. But music is turned down low or off at night.

  • PARKING: Small lot behind restaurant fills quickly, especially at lunch. Mt. Diablo Boulevard is sometimes your best bet.

  • KIDS: No printed menu, but peanut butter and jelly, pasta, burgers, grilled cheese, ham and cheese and chicken breasts are typically on hand.

  • PLUSES: Sophisticated, ingredient-driven cuisine; cozy neighborhood restaurant.

  • MINUSES: Noise and parking are the only real issues.

  • DATE OPENED: July 20, 2007.

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    Price code

    $ Typical entree under $10

    $$ Typical entree under $20

    $$$ Typical entree under $30

    $$$$ Typical entree under $40