Any time is a good time to stroll along Fillmore in the Lower Pac Heights – cute shops, great restaurants, and just a great laid-back vibe. I was there for dinner at Elite Cafe, which was bustling when my companion and I arrived for our reservation.
“Re-imagined Western saloon.” Yeah, that sounds about right. Both tall and standard tables stood between the long bar and the booth seats that lined the wall opposite. Dark brown wood was pretty much all I was able to make out in the dimly-lit restaurant. We were fortunate to get a booth, which had very high backs and was cozy for enough to fit four healthy San Franciscans (read: between the wall and the coats hanging on the hook, two obese diners might have some trouble sitting comfortably on one seat).
As is my custom, since it was my first time there I ordered the house specialties: Elite’s Infamous Deviled Eggs and the Hominy Crusted Catfish with Ham Hock, Smoked Tomato and Black-Eyed Pea Stew and Crème Fraîche. This is a girl from the south was excited to dig in.
Perhaps it were my expectations that led to my disappointment. This was no real Cajun food, “re-imagined Cajun food.” That’s not to say that the food wasn’t delicious, but it was Cajun food done a little with the coastal Californian in mind, a little with an immature understanding of spices.
For instance, Elite’s Infamous Deviled Eggs are infamous for…? Definitely not for being devilish. The ingredients were all there – a mild mayonnaise, salt, a sprinkling of paprika, the egg yolk, of course – but there was no spice, no zing.
Let me tell you something about fried catfish in the South. (I grew up in a little town southwest of Houston.) Catfish is thin, almost cracker-crispy on the outside, succulent on the inside. Great Southern fried catfish needs nothing to accompany it but a slice or two of soft white sandwich bread, to which any cornmeal fall-out is stuck. Go too far with spices and the flavor of the fish is gone.
Such was the case at Elite Cafe. On its own, the catfish was good – not Cajun good, not as crisp as I’d like, and the hominy didn’t contribute any great flavor, but it was good. And as it turned out, the devil was not in my appetizer because it was residing in the black-eyed pea stew. A spoonful of the stew obliterated any existing taste of fish and the following bites of catfish as well – which was super-sad since I really, really miss fried catfish.
I debated with my dining companion afterward about dessert: go for the Maker Mark’s Pecan Pie with Spiked Whipped Cream and Cinnamon Ice Cream as the Southern belle in me desired, and risk being disappointed by California re-imagination? Or try something completely different like the Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp (which California tends to do extremely well) or Beignets (which are difficult to screw up) with Triple Espresso Bean Ice Cream and Fudge Sauce?
I went with the former. The Southern Belle in me hopped onto her Texas-bound stagecoach and wept into her parasol. The pie would’ve been better served warm, but it wouldn’t have helped much.
Another lesson on Southern cuisine: When you press the side of your fork into a slice of warm pecan pie, it gives readily, but the components of that forkful stay together. You see, the chucks of pecans are held together by the sweet, gooey combination of brown sugar, eggs, and molasses, creating the perfect bite that stays on your fork long enough to pick up a bit of ice cream and a puff of whipped cream – the. perfect. bite.
What my fork found at the Elite Cafe was what I think was the California re-imagination of the pecan pie: bad enough that the pie was served lukewarm, but it was too crumbly. So stick your fork into the ice cream afterward and a precious pecan bit falls in, meaning you had to go dig it out and destroy the scoop of ice cream. After two bites, the plate was a mess.
All was not lost, however. I could have eaten the spiked whipped cream on its own. (I think it was bourbon, my companion thinks it was whiskey, and I did not ask for confirmation.) The cinnamon ice cream was outstanding. The combination of the two could’ve joined my inner Southern belle in the stagecoach and made many people in Texas very happy.
Ambience wins here. If you’re looking for romance and a reason to cozy up, this is it. Elite Cafe is in a great spot in a nice neighborhood, so it wouldn’t be a bad place to pop in after an afternoon of shopping and browsing.