A little girl, a kindergarten ballerina, pirouetted beside our table at La Movida on a quiet Saturday afternoon. In her neat white skirt and shiny black pumps, she looked like a dancer — a sugarplum fairy from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. She also strongly resembled the owner, whom I'd overheard speaking Spanish. If she's his daughter, I thought, she probably speaks Spanish, too.
“APuedes bailar?” I asked inanely, having dredged the phrase from the deep silt of high-school memory.
She looked at me curiously, as if she were about to reply in perfect English (always crushing to someone who's trying to speak a foreign tongue), but before she could get out a word in either language, the paella arrived — our main course for brunch — and, intermittently on her tiptoes, she returned by a series of twirls to the front of the dining room.
The restaurant is narrow and deep and pleasantly dim in the manner of a European cafe. Tables and chairs give a chic update to 1950s kitchenette styles, making the place seem older than it is and yet utterly new. Which it is. La Movida is the latest snappy addition to a corridor of 16th Street between Dolores and Mission that has lately been blooming with boho chic. These days the neighborhood, with its slightly seedy glamour, seems a lot like the East Village in New York, or Earls Court in London.
“La movida” was the name of the renaissance that swept through Spain in the late 1970s, after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco. The name suggests the most modern face of Spain, but the restaurant deals in paella, a dish from the Mediterranean coast that dates from the 13th century. The classic rice for paella — Alcazaba, a short-grain variety — has even deeper roots: It was brought to Iberia in the eighth century by Arab farmers.
No brunch would be complete without a host of egg dishes, and La Movida offers them, from huevos rancheros to a tortilla, the Spanish potato-and-egg pancake that's similar to the Italian frittata. But we'd come for the paella.
While that was being prepared, we tried some soup. My friend had the soup of the day, acorn squash ($2.50), a silky, clinging broth that tasted intensely of nuts and butter. I had a cup of the gazpacho ($2.50), the traditional, tomato-based cold vegetable soup of Spain. I've disliked a lot of gazpachos over the years (many of my own making) because the raw vegetables can taste harsh, and a little too much onion can strong-arm the rest of the ingredients. I can't say I would rush back to La Movida for the gazpacho, though it was pretty good — a creamy, balanced dish that needed only a light sprinkling of salt and pepper to enliven the flavors.
I would rush back for the paella La Movida, which we ordered for two ($20.50). It reached the table in its special double-handled cast-iron pan. (The Romans called the pan a patella, which gave the dish its name.) Within the pan was a deep drift of rice made bright yellow by the saffron and prettily flecked with peas and thin strips of red pepper.
The paella was also loaded with shellfish: mussels, clams, sea scallops, and shrimp. Barely a bite went by that did not include some sort of seafood.
But the big taste comes from the chicken and, especially, the sausage — Spanish chorizo, quite different from its wilder Mexican cousin (which contains chili powder, among other things). The sausage is mild, not hot, but it's beautifully juicy and gives a real kick of garlic to everything around it.
If Spaniards make a practice of eating late paella brunches anything like La Movida's, then it's no wonder they don't have dinner until 10 in the evening. There's no need. We sat there, pleasantly listless, while the bill was tallied, and we watched in wonder as the lithe little ballerina — who plainly had not had a big brunch of paella — continued to cavort.
Later the same week. Dinner. Drifted languidly along 16th Street through the crowds (lots of brightly colored hair) to Pastaio, a comfortable pasta-pizza place just a few doors away from La Movida. A true California restaurant, with a largely punk-gay crowd in an Italian joint run by Latinos.
The menu trumpeted the virtues of the bruschetta ($3.95), which features the restaurant's homemade bread. Unlike many bruschettas, Pastaio's did not emphasize vinegary, garlicky tomatoes. Instead the bread — thick and warm, slightly chewy inside its crust — was the star. The dish as a whole tasted mildly sweet rather than sharp, and the ample grating of Parmesan cheese melted on top finished the flavors with a salty-tang flourish.
The minestrone ($3.95) was, with its profusion of vegetables, almost stewlike, but the broth needed salt. Even then, there was a little too much celery; its bitter undertones can easily become dominant.
The pizza Fiorentina ($9.50) was an impressive disk of crisp, well-blistered dough, topped with spinach (a Tuscan contribution to Italian cooking), mushrooms, and fresh mozzarella. It sounded like an attractive combination, and it had a decent tomato sauce as a foundation. But it wasn't until the server spread a fair amount of grated Parmesan cheese over everything that the flavors emerged.
I like to order lasagna in restaurants because it's a big family dish I seldom make myself. Pastaio's ($7.95) was huge, a gratifying blast of true peasant cooking. There was, thrillingly, too much of everything: a sea of tomato sauce; a heavy cap of melted mozzarella cheese on top; a mother lode of ground meat and ricotta cheese inside. There was also bechamel, the white sauce whose scent of nutmeg was faint but unmistakable and cast a Near Eastern spell on the pasta.
Even as we left, the place continued to fill up with hungry foot traffic — neighbors and strollers perusing one menu before moving on a few steps to peruse another. On 16th Street, there's a lot of enjoyable perusing to do.
Paella La Movida, 3228 16th St., S.F., 552-3889. Tues-Sat 5:30-11 p.m.; Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sun 5:30-10 p.m.
Pastaio, 3182 16th St., S.F., 255-2440. Mon-Thurs 4-11 p.m.; Fri-Sun 11 a.m.-2 p.m. & 4 p.m.-midnight