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Chow's former chef opens his own successful Lafayette restaurant.


Poached pear at Gigi in Lafayette
Photography by Aya Brackett

The minute people find out I review restaurants, they have two questions: “What is your favorite restaurant?” and, “When you review a place, do they know who you are?”

Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. Having met chef Jeffrey Amber when he was the chef at XYZ in San Francisco’s W hotel, I knew I might have trouble flying under the radar to assess Gigi in Lafayette.

Amber’s career in San Francisco included stints at Moose’s in North Beach and Grand Café in the theater district. While Amber was at XYZ, the San Francisco Chronicle named him a “Rising Star Chef.” He went on to become the corporate chef for the Chow restaurant group, where for two years he oversaw the two San Francisco Chows as well as the popular Lafayette location.

Last spring, Amber set out on his own. He snapped up the former Kaffee Barbara, around the corner from Bo’s Barbecue. Amber did much of the redesign himself, with friends helping out. They turned the little cottage into a comfortable warren of small dining rooms and added a Craftsman-style bar and communal table. Amber’s girlfriend, Roxanne Logan, is the general manager, and his friend Steven Baumgartner has chosen a well-priced and worldly wine list.

Contra Costa has few chef-owned restaurants. Amber, who clearly understands seasonal menus and values local ingredients, is having a ball cooking at his. “I was always interested in doing a chef-owned restaurant here,” says Amber, who named Gigi after his daughter. “I have lived in Walnut Creek for years. I’m very comfortable here.”

Local diners are clearly comfortable, too. Entering through the parking lot one evening, I secured a table in the welcoming garden. Looking around, I felt I had barged in on a private party—everyone seemed to know each other. As for anonymity, I was just another “woman of a certain age” dining with a friend.

When I saw the late-summer menu, I was thrown into a major foodie dilemma. Most everything appealed to me. Oh, to have the four stomachs of a cow! Should I have the tomato-Gruyère soup with basil croutons or the Brentwood peach salad? Then my eyes fell on a dish so seductive that I wondered why no chef had devised it before: pasta carbonara with lobster. Lest I break the axles on my little car, I limited myself to two appetizers.

Chef-Owner Jeffrey Amber and his daughter, whose nickname is Gigi.

The first was the peach salad. With its slices of juicy, ripe Brentwood peach, the dish was what “local and fresh” should mean. The tangle of greens, napped with a champagne vinaigrette, supported toasted almonds and shards of salty ricotta salata.

The same salad is now on the menu with fall pears. “My menu is very tied to the seasons,” says Amber.

My second appetizer was that inventive carbonara. In most restaurants, pasta carbonara (the charcoal-maker’s pasta) is made with cream, not egg. The original version features black pepper, pancetta, onions, and a raw egg, which cooks when mixed with the hot noodles. Amber’s version is loyal to the original but is tossed with luscious bits of lobster, and topped with a lobster claw.

My companion’s king salmon entrée, which I sampled, was expertly cooked. The wild fish came with a side dish that reinforced my admiration for Amber’s inventiveness: toasted orzo. The oblong pellets of pasta, pan toasted to a dark golden brown, were the perfect textural foil for the tender salmon.

On the dessert menu, I saw an item that had eluded me throughout my life as a food lover: funnel cake. The dessert could have been a greasy disappointment, but what arrived was a delicious swirl of sugar-sprinkled fried dough with Gentleman Jack whiskey caramel. If shaped differently, it would have been a churro.

Lobster Carbonara
That first evening, the service was casually friendly but efficient. On my next visit, it was immediately clear that, from the host to the waiter, I was known. Bryan Miller, the long-ago restaurant critic of The New York Times, once said that when he knew he was recognized, he reviewed the service around him. My waiter was also taking care of a table of four in their sixties. He greeted them by asking, “How are things going for you guys?” When he poured their wine, the bottle rested on the glass. Both no-no’s in my book.

For my main course, I ordered the rib-eye steak (rare), served with blue cheese on top, heirloom tomatoes, and arugula. The combination was nice, but the staff’s knowing who I was didn’t make my steak any more tender.

My dessert, a poached locally grown pear stuffed with vanilla mascarpone, served on a pool of huckleberry coulis, atoned for the meat.

On my last visit, I again slipped into the garden, this time for lunch. The sandwich of the week was an open-faced mélange of Swiss cheese, sweet coppa, and sopressata salami—both imported from Italy—and caramelized onions atop toasted levain bread from Semifreddi’s Bakery. I could eat it every day.

Now the answer to the perennial question, “What is your favorite restaurant?” These days, I’d say, “Gigi, in Lafayette.”

At a glance

What makes it special: Gigi is grounded in its locale--it's sophisticated, yet approachable and friendly.
Don't miss: The seasonal offerings and the lobster carbonara.
What to order: Any of the salads, one of the fish dishes, and the funnel cake.
When to go: Weekdays to avoid the crush. For lunch on the heated patio.
The space: Clean lines, some Craftsman touches. The small dining room to the left of the bar is a cozy spot for dinner.
Bonus: A wine list that inclusdes great California Choices such as Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon as well as European wines such as Albert Boxler Alsatian Riesling. Also, an ever-evolving menu closely tied to local produce and the seasons.

Contact: 1005 Brown Ave., at Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 962-0882.
Hours: Lunch and dinner Tues.–Sun.
Price: Appetizers $5–$13, entrées $10–$26
Alcohol: Wine and beer

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