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The menu our waiter at Pastis distributed around the table (with a series of little "voila!"s) was a simple piece of ocher-colored paper -- easy, guiltless pickings for a food critic and, more important, a sign that the kitchen changes the menu frequently. I folded mine up and furtively stuffed it in my pocket, but not before giving it a quick scan, my eyes catching for a moment on one of the first courses, piquillo peppers.
Those are the famous red peppers of Navarre, a province in northeastern Spain not far from the Basque country, which reaches into neighboring France. The town of Bayonne, in the French Basque country, is where Pastis' big culinary gun, Gerald Hirigoyen, grew up. As patrons of Fringale, Hirigoyen's other restaurant, know, his cooking style gives French bistro dishes the occasional Basque (and Californian) twist.
And for not much money. Fringale has been a bargain since it opened in 1991; Pastis, despite its tony neighborhood (near Levi Strauss Plaza, at the foot of Telegraph Hill) and museum-of-modern-art decor (a wall of pastel rhombuses and trapezoids; a strikingly geometrical, sun-yellow entry), is another good deal. Most of the first courses cost about $6, and most of the main courses are between $11 and $13.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant was full, even on a Sunday evening just a few days after opening. But despite the hubbub, our table awaited us, and the smooth service, beginning with the swift arrival of water glasses and bread, never faltered. That might have had something to do with the presence of Hirigoyen himself, who, face alert, repeatedly popped forth from the kitchen to visit various tables, and apparently to issue instructions to his staff.
The first courses were uniformly excellent. The green salad ($4.50) combined pristine leaves of Boston lettuce with a bright, simple herb vinaigrette. The soupe du jour ($4) -- cream of asparagus -- seemed perfectly to straddle the boundary between seasons. The arrival of asparagus in produce markets traditionally means that spring has come, but in the soup its essence was rich and earthy, something of a hedge against a chilly winter night.
Crab, despite its light sweetness, belongs to winter, at least around here. The kitchen stuffed it into three good-size ravioli ($7) and garnished the plate with a vegetable salpicon (a fine dice) that consisted of those cold-month stalwarts, carrots and parsnips. The delicate flavor of crab can get lost in overambitious preparations, but in Pastis' ravioli it was not only clear but dominant.
The butternut squash beignets ($6) consisted of pastry rolls stuffed with a squash puree redolent of nuts and butter, then fried to a crispy gold. The dish sounded and looked fairly ordinary but was, subtly, extraordinary -- almost like a savory dessert.
Back to the piquillo peppers ($6). Although they were filled with a mix of goat cheese, zucchini, and basil (a summery collection) and adorned with a pile of angel-hairlike pommes frites, it was the bright-red peppers themselves that brought the plate to life. The dish was served at room temperature, but the peppers emitted a slow heat, like radioactivity, that reached a low crescendo before gradually fading. The heat was thrillingly subdued, a hint of great scorching power reserved for another day.
Baby spinach salad ($6) was a bed of bright-green leaves scattered with egg mimosa (crumblings of hard-boiled egg) and lardons (bits of fried bacon). The sherry-vinegar dressing (another Spanish touch) cut the fat with acid and simultaneously balanced the bitterness of the spinach with a whisper of sweetness.
"We should leave now," one of my tablemates suggested. "Everything so far has been perfect, and I don't want to be disappointed."
We didn't leave, and we weren't disappointed. While the first courses had arrived slightly willy-nilly over a period of a few minutes (last to appear, the salad, was also, mysteriously, the simplest), the main courses were set before us one after the other -- each with a "voila!"
Our table's favorite was the seafood and fennel bourride ($12), a stew of salmon, sea bass, clams, and mussels in a peppery broth laced with chunks of fennel bulb. Unlike fennel seeds, whose licorice taste is strong (as in Italian sausage), the celerylike bulb imparted a subtler flavor -- an aromatic sweetness that nicely matched all the pepper.
Crispy striped bass ($12) lay atop a bed of julienned cucumber souped up with lemon and coriander -- a kind of tart, juicy salad whose bright flavor lifted the fish. (Most fish, especially white-fleshed varieties, benefit from a bit of crisping: The caramelized flesh not only adds texture but enriches the flavor, which can otherwise be pale.)
Steamed salmon ($13) was served with a relish of celery root, jicama, and apple, dressed with a red-pepper vinaigrette. Salmon, even steamed, can stand on its own, but here the relish added a muted, complementary bite.
Crispy chicken ($11) consisted of a boneless breast presented in a bath of citrus-cumin jus and dates -- a vaguely Moroccan, spicy-sweet combination of flavors that melted into the meat.
Although the main courses were straightforward and uncluttered, none was simpler than the filet of beef ($17) -- a thick slice of meat cooked rare, as ordered, and scattered with caramelized parsnips (not my favorite vegetable, winter or otherwise, but not bad) and pearl onions. The great appeal of beef is that it's best when simplest: a little salt and pepper before grilling. Pastis' kitchen certainly knows the drill.
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