“Do you like heirloom tomatoes?” Howard Karp asks when I call Chef’s Table in Lafayette to make a reservation. “Love them,” I reply. “How about fish—perhaps a halibut poached in olive oil? Or wild Pacific salmon, seared rare?”
It’s not your typical chat with a restaurant host, and for good reason: Chef’s Table is no ordinary restaurant and Howard is no mere reservationist. He and his wife, Jamie, both chefs, prepare multicourse meals in their home kitchen, explaining each step as they go, while diners watch, listen, and indulge.
The Karps conceived this arrangement back in 1997. Howard, a slender, serious man in his fifties, was an instructor at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon. During his career, he has cooked for four presidents. Jamie, a Montana native who discovered her love for cooking while preparing meals as a nanny, got her formal training at the Western Culinary Institute when Howard was teaching there. They’ve been together ever since.
As we pull up to the couple’s home in a leafy Lafayette neighborhood, we feel as though we’re visiting friends rather than dining out. But when Jamie, a bright-eyed thirtysomething with light blond hair, answers the door in a crisp, white chef’s coat and then leads us into the kitchen, we realize we’re in for an experience that will rival the Food Network’s liveliest show.
The cooking area is bordered by bar-style seating, so it feels like a theater. The counter is set with stemware, heavy silver, and large, round plates. Chef’s Table does not supply alcohol, but if you bring your own, the Karps will pour you a glass and invite you to sit, sip, and soak in the warm tones of the uncluttered kitchen.
Then the show begins. After they briefly introduce themselves, they sharpen their knives and turn on the stove.
On our visit, the first course was blini topped with sweet peppers and eggplant “caviar.” Although blini are traditionally made from buckwheat, Howard composes his minipancakes from Yukon Gold potatoes. As he spoons each dollop of batter into a pan sizzling with grapeseed oil, he explains the toppings. The first is roasted eggplant flesh blended with garlic, sea salt, and black pepper. Bell pepper—roasted, peeled, minced, and bound with olive oil—is the second. The presentation—one blin per plate—is gorgeous, and the flavors are harmonious.
An heirloom tomato dish comes next. Howard marinates the sliced tomatoes in balsamic vinaigrette. While he describes the lemon aioli he made from his own fruit “confit,” Jamie slices and toasts her olive bread. They spread the toast with aioli, then add the tomatoes, a few fava beans, and a shaving of sheep’s milk cheese. The overly starchy favas should have been left out, but the other ingredients shine.
We’re still savoring the lingering taste of those tomatoes when Jamie presents us with a little intermezzo of her homemade black currant sorbet, a palate cleanser for the upcoming fish course and a delectable treat.
After putting the wild salmon in the oven, Howard poaches morel mushrooms from Oregon and leeks in fish fumet and chicken stock for the sauce. After reducing the mixture, he adds cream, butter, lemon, and peas.
The salmon emerges from the oven glittering from a sprinkle of salt and cayenne pepper. According to Howard, salmon should be eaten medium rare. Unfortunately, tonight it spent too long in the oven—the fish is closer to medium well than medium rare—but the rich, earthy sauce is flawless and almost makes up for it.
There is no special sauce to save the next course, a mixed green salad tossed with apples, pistachios, and a sweet-milk Italian Gorgonzola cheese. The dressing, a vinaigrette of orange juice, sweet-hot mustard, and balsamic vinegar, is too much when paired with the salad’s ingredients. We nibble without oohing and ahhing as we had during the previous courses.
The excitement returns, however, when we sink our teeth into dessert: a yellow peach tarte Tatin with cinnamon ice cream, all skillfully made from scratch by Jamie. It ends the meal perfectly.
Full and in good spirits, we walk to our cars. The night has been fun, and much of the food was fabulous.
Dining with the Karps is not cheap; $110 per person, not including tip. Still, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve experienced a night of dining like no other.
701 Glenside Circle, Lafayette, (925) 299-6905. Lunch Mon.–Fri., $55 per person, three courses, 4–8 persons required; dinner daily, $110 per person, five courses, 4–8 persons required Mon.-Thurs., 6–8 persons required Fri.–Sun. Reservations required.