By Molly Gore
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To several generations of San Francisco diners, "Basque food" meant the hearty multicourse suppers served family-style in boardinghouses all around North Beach. At such places, beret-topped, bota-bearing sheepherders from the California hills, in town for a little R&R, could get a plain room and the sort of food they remembered from the old country: tart dressed vegetables, rustic peasant breads, stews rich with tripe or oxtails, lamb and mutton in simple, satisfying preparations. The adventurous San Franciscan was welcome to sit among these trenchermen and try to keep up with the unending parade of bowls and platters, the victuals washed down with jugs of rough local wine or preceded by sips of Amer Picon, an orange bitter liqueur, as aperitif.
It's a cuisine as particular as any on Earth. Transported across the Atlantic to the American West by itinerant shepherds (a time-honored Basque livelihood), the food remained ruggedly earthbound even as a few lush California foodstuffs made their way into its cooking pot. Today the mother cuisine is as fiercely independent as ever, with numerous gastronomic societies keeping the cookery lively and a new generation of chefs bringing their nueva cocina vasca to food lovers around the world.
One such outpost is Basque, a 9-month-old venue located among the lofts, brickwork, and performance spaces South of Market. The old dishes have been refined and updated, presenting staples like chorizo, potatoes, and salt cod in tonier -- if occasionally unsuccessful -- culinary settings. The emphasis is on that glory of Spanish food, tapas, which the Basques eat in quantity. Basque's menu features a dozen varieties; as at many authentic Spanish eateries, the tapas, the libations that accompany them, and the friendly, comfortable atmosphere are the best reasons to drop by.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Parking: possible. Muni: 12, 19, 27, 42.
Noise level: tranquil
Despite its youthful status the place looks like a pleasant old San Francisco fish house: dark woods, tile floors, upholstered booths, and unpretentious accents. A handsome 20-stool bar lines one side of the front room, and sitting there with a cocktail and a saucer of fried almonds, an attentive yet unobtrusive bartender at hand, is an agreeable way to begin an evening. You can sample the tapas at the bar, just as in San Sebastian, and although there isn't a parade of the little snacks lining the counter for you to eat at will (the best thing about any trip to Spain, Gaudí and El Prado notwithstanding), there are several drink options to choose from.
Sherry is the classic tapas accompaniment, and a glass of bone-dry, barely fruity Lustau fino is just the thing to go with those hot, crunchy, lightly salty almonds. (Basque offers only three or four sherries, and the total absence of hard ciders, the Basque Country's signature drink, is a puzzlement.) Among the house cocktails are the Picasso Lemonade, a fresh, summery concoction of lemon, sugar, ice, watermelon essence, and raspberry-infused vodka; and the great Basque eye-opener, Picon Punch, an innocent-looking tumbler of sweet grenadine, soda water, bitter and smoky Amer Picon, and a floater of brandy. The white sangria is another fine sipping option: light, cool, and crisp with the flavors of orange and dry vina blanca.
The drinks' companions, the tapas, include a few near misses and several delights. Among the latter is the tostada de boquerones, which sent me on a Proustian reverie all the way back to Barcelona and a little old-quarter cava where the only menu items were champagne, manchego cheese, and silky little anchovies. At Basque the fresh anchovies are marinated in sherry vinegar and thick, golden olive oil, with tart caperberries on the side adding a jazzy contrast. The pimentos del piquillo rellenos come beautifully presented -- a row of four bright red piquillo peppers drizzled with deep-green parsley oil and stuffed with a sweet, succulent mixture of salt cod and crabmeat. The gambas de pimenton are the best things on the menu: jumbo prawns fried with paprika and eaten whole -- shells, antennae, and all -- a crunchy, spicy pleasure not unlike munching high-end barbecued potato chips. The tostada de cabrales -- grilled pear slices, walnuts, sourdough toasts, and cabrales blue cheese -- boasts a great combination of flavors, but there's too much toast, not enough blue cheese, and the whole thing can just as easily be assembled in your own kitchen. Even less impressive are the patatas bravas (heavy, bland fried potatoes with an unremarkable smoked paprika sauce) and the pollo al ajillo (tough chunks of chicken sautéed with admittedly tasty, brittle potato puffs).
The entrees are also hit and miss. Although I like the idea of paella, I've never had one that tasted as good as it looked or sounded, and Basque's paella Valenciana is no exception. It looks terrific, brought to the table in a rustic, individual paella pan, and the whole saffron-rice-seafood-chorizo concept is tantalizing. But in the end it's the same old mishmash of gummy, oily rice, rubbery sausage, and muddled flavors (although the clams and prawns somehow remain sweet and juicy). The chuleton al Idiazabal -- slices of grilled steak with potatoes and smoked cheese made from Basque sheep's milk -- is another visually impressive presentation, but the steak could've been more tender and the beef-potato-cheese combo exemplifies the restaurant's dearth of vegetable matter. But the steamed clams are sweet and tender, especially in combination with a subtle white wine sauce and chunks of smoky, delicious artichoke. And the salmon a la Riberena is an unexpected delight: The fish is cooked with a barely sweet hard cider and chewy serrano ham, giving the dish a complex, almost Asiatic flavor and texture.