A year ago one would be hard-pressed to find much Cajun cuisine in San Francisco outside of the Elite Cafe and the Boxing Room, both well established restaurants. Meet your new best friend, Alba Ray's. Named after owner Alvin Garcia's son's middle name and chef/partner Adam Rosenblum's daughter, Alba Ray's is one of the most playful and inspiring new restaurants this writer has seen in a long time. Located at 2293 Mission St. at 19th in the old Hapa Ramen space Alba Ray's is somehow quintessentially a San Francisco restaurant and yet also imparts the open and often raucous hospitality inherent to a typical eatery and drinking establishment in New Orleans.
The 100-seat, 2,400 square foot restaurant was designed by Oakland-based Arcsine (Duende, Calavera) and features ornamental iron arches clad in ferns, vintage chandeliers, handmade Fireclay tiles and low-lit sconces. There is a hand-painted mosaic floor mural and fleur de lys wall art by specialty painter Caroline Lizarraga, giving the space an eclectic and unique vibe. The zinc-topped 16-seat communal table in front of the open kitchen is sure to become the place for large, festive celebrations.
The char-broiled gulf oysters
Photo by Zak Wu
Mr. Garcia and Mr. Rosenblum are both partners in the very popular Causwells in the Marina and Popson's Burgers downtown. Garcia has had a love affair with New Orleans for some time and Rosenblum has actually cooked at Herbsaint, a beloved dining destination in NOLA. New to the team is chef de cuisine Matt Woods (Schmidt's) who is originally from New Orleans and has worked at many of that city's iconic establishments. Start out the evening with a Sazerac cocktail (Rittenhouse rye, bitters, sugar, absinthe rinse) from bar manager Mike Henderson (Delarosa) and a platter of shucked oysters. The next dish to follow these pristine, raw bivalves is the char-broiled gulf oysters with herbed butter and Romano cheese. The accompanying, house made white bread is the perfect foil for soaking up all the deliciousness. Another not-to-miss starter is the crispy boudin balls with house creole mustard aioli. At this point hopefully you are on your second cocktail or glass of wine and are ready for a feast. There is really something for everyone and many of the plates are quite small so indulge and order to your heart's content!
The Gumbo with Andouille, chicken & crispy okra
Photo by James Stolich
The blue crab salad (green tomato, avocado, herbs) is light and a refreshing palate cleanser. The rabbit stew with milk biscuits is small, perfect for sharing and very rich in flavor and goes perfectly with a side of dirty rice with pork and liver. It is, perhaps, one of the kitchen's best dishes. Other signature items include the gumbo (chicken, Andouille, crispy okra) and the smoked eggplant and carrot jambalaya, though I'm not sure the abundant amount of shiktakes are really at home in this latter dish.
If you are feeling indulgent, order the excellent mac and cheese and be sure to spoon some of the jus from the gumbo on top! And if you didn't order the blue crab salad go for the escarole version and be generous with the Crystal brand hot sauce, stationed on every table. Finish off the night with the deep-fried beignets and another cocktail. Alba Ray's is open daily for dinner with lunch service planned for the near future.
Beignets with powdered sugar & chocolate sauce
Photo by James Stolich
James is a food writer and Bay Area chef who owns and runs a private dinner party and cooking class business specializing in regional Italian and Spanish cuisine. See CookWithJames.com