Innovation at Jack Falstaff’s

Jack Falstaff’s new young chef, Jonnatan Leiva, is attracted to innovation, but he is a flavor-first kind of guy. Provocative ingredients jump out on his small, manageable menu but this is one place where the diner is not punished for trying something new. Leiva builds his dishes on sound culinary principles. He integrates, he balances, he understands why classic combinations work. Most of all, he believes in good product and handles it with respect. He’s my kind of cook.

Take, for example, a creation called sweet cantaloupe and chorizo ($10). The inspiration for this salad originated from the Italian pairing of melon and prosciutto, but Leiva uses crisp, bacon-like strips of chorizo, plus a miniscule mince of it sprinkled over sweet, juicy cubes of melon and mild lambs’ lettuce (mache). He carefully paints a stripe of powdered red chile on the plate, leaving it up to the eater how much kick he/she wants. Mix it right in.

I followed the waiter’s instructions to blend spokes of lemon zest, fresh horseradish and capers, plus arugula, into a puck of grass-fed bison meticulously hand cut into tiny cubes to create a light and refreshing tartare ($12).

All of Leiva’s dishes are vibrant and exciting. A chilled Brandywine tomato soup ($9), thin and dark, is spiked with pickled cabbage and basil. Seared local albacore tuna ($16), sliced and interleaved with foie gras, is sprinkled with bacon bits and drizzled with a lemony vinaigrette that pulls everything together.

Many come to Jack Falstaff for suckling pig. Leiva gets this clean, buttery pork from a small farm in Manteca. He gives it a Japanese spin by placing a succulent little chop and thick roasted slices on house-made ramen in a rich soy broth. Seaweed, scallions and a fried partridge egg add complexity.

For dessert, count yourself lucky if the kitchen sends out its Mariquita strawberry sorbet dressed with crunchy sea salt, roasted strawberries and olive oil. It’s fabulous.

On weekdays the restaurant caters to the SoMa business crowd with appealing $18 power lunch plates. A crunchy-battered soft-shell crab BLT with tasty pink sauce and a thick slice of yellow heirloom tomato came with fresh corn beignets and a green salad with figs — a dream plate. An open-face sandwich piled with American kobe sirloin, grilled onions and king trumpet mushrooms was equally voluptuous. The juices ran deliciously into the bread while sides of fried padron peppers and a green salad cut the richness.

Leiva was born in El Salvador but his family is Spanish. They moved here when he was 4. He attended the California Culinary Academy and cooked in serious restaurants in Paris, New York and San Francisco, finally working with James Ormsby, the former executive chef of PlumpJack operations. Leiva took over when Ormsby left the company.

I have always liked Jack Falstaff’s cozy dining room with soft upholstered walls that match the banquettes. A dramatic outdoor patio protected by an overhang has become an after-work cocktail party.

What impresses me most is the sweet, professional, unpretentious staff. One night I saw an elderly woman being escorted to the loo on the arm of our waiter. This restaurant has regulars of all ages and treats them like family. Though modern and stylish, Jack Falstaff radiates a genuine old-fashioned spirit of bonhomie.

Jack Falstaff

Location: 598 Second St., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 836-9239, www.plumpjack.com

Hours: Lunch is Monday through Friday from 11:30 to 2 p.m. Dinner is Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.

Price range: Small plates $9-$16, main courses $24-$31

Recommended dishes: Bison tartare; melon and chorizo, suckling pig with ramen, albacore with foie gras, power lunch plates

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express

Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.com.

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