Eat: Bellota

  • By Peter Lawrence Kane
  • Wed Jun 29th, 2016 6:00pm
  • DiningEat
The Fideua and Pluma paelas

Neither a proper tapas restaurant nor strictly a seafood spot, Bellota has a cryptically structured menu that's a little bit of a grab bag of Spanish cuisine. It's easier to over-order here than at most places — especially if you can't resist the cart that wheels around some nights, hawking cheese in olive oil and Gildas, skewered olive-and-anchovy pinchos that could be straight out of San Sebastian, but in a setting that's very much San Francisco. (The white subway tile is relegated to the open kitchen, however.)

Unless you're with a group of 10 people, you'll almost certainly leave whole categories untouched. But if you don't get flustered by the feeling that you're ordering wrong, this Spanish restaurant at 888 Brannan (on the ground floor of Airbnb headquarters) is a wonderland of rich, salty goodness.

Bellota is Spanish for “acorn,” and as the room has more than a few decorative ham hocks in it, you quickly realize what it's all about.

Pincho cart notwithstanding, most items are very large, among them the Mar y Montana, a must-have tower of five cold dishes (for $50, or $11 individually). I've had the famed bagel tower at Sadelle's in New York, but this is even more absurdly opulent. Although to say so means slighting oysters doused with cava and raw grass-fed beef that's served with oyster escabeche, the two standouts were the Xato (poached sable with trout roe, orange, and romesco) and the Almeja (poached clam with pimenton, potato, and cippolini), which comes in its own seafood tin. Overall, there's something satisfying about having that five-tiered metal rack on your table.

The paella is also irresistible. I heartily recommend the $55 Dividida option that allows you to choose two, and I suggest the Pluma (paella, acorn-fed Iberico pork shoulder, saffron, garbanzos, and summer squash) and the Fideua, a take on Rice-a-Roni (“the S.F. treat,” as the menu says) made with Gulf shrimp, scallop, asparagus, and squid in its own ink. The former is rich and regal while the latter pulls back from the briny deep with a healthy amount of vegetables that don't feel like they've been slow-cooked to the point of devitalization; they're a great point-counterpoint match.

Loosely categorized by cooking method, the tapas are generally great — and a bargain. Edible flowers make me happy, as does purslane, and the nutty, slightly perfumed Remolacha (with beet, farro verde, raisin, pistachio, and goat cheese, $12) is a terrific way to ingest some vegetable matter. Crispy and twice-cooked, the bravas ($9) were wonderful on their own — which is a good thing since the thin salsa was lackluster and the aioli had only a whiff of smoke. The Moroccan-inflected chicken albondigas ($16) were on the mild side; simply put, I've had better versions elsewhere, and with tangier yogurt. The onion-sweet croquetas ($15), a plate of three clam-and-sea-urchin fritters made with pickled ramps and seaweed powder, are so rich that one might be all you need. I wish the seaweed powder would be amped up to cut the creaminess, but it's a superb dish, and those slivers of ramps do a lot.

My favorite dish, and one of the best things I've eaten in months, was one of the four offerings from the hearth: the Fabada ($22/$42). A stew of Asturian white beans, chorizo, morcilla, pork belly, grilled octopus, and charred and fermented cabbage, it's arguably a bit salty, but this is one glorious blood sausage kimchi stew — and unsurprisingly, it deepened as leftovers. (With crusty bread, it would be perfect.) The other hearth item, the Cordero (slow-roasted lamb with flatbread, cherry salsa, and ember-roasted and marinated eggplant, $20/$38) was a situation where the whole was less than the sum of the parts. I loved the thick slices of almost beef-like lamb, but cherries and eggplant together left me puzzled. Plus, it's served with quartered pita bread even though it's indisputably fork-and-steak-knife food.

Dessert was great on both visits, one being a chocolate cake with marcona almonds and olive-oil ice cream — which imparts a luscious texture — and the other a plate of pillowy churros with dulce de leche and salted chocolate sauce. (Yes, even Bellota's churros were salty.)

The cocktail list is Spanish in flavor but not slavishly so. There are three variations on a gin-and-tonic — poured at the table from Indi tonic, it should be noted — and the Rocinante (peppered gin, thyme, honey, and oloroso sherry, $13), which starts off with a bite before mellowing deep into the honey, like an overeager kisser who quickly adjusts. (The thyme skewers the lemon wedge in a visually arresting way, too: a curve hitting a curve.)

A trait more often found in hotel restaurants, Bellota's restrooms are not technically on-premises. Fair or unfair, it's a bit of a mood-killer to walk through Airbnb's echoey atrium on your way to the loo, but that's mostly because the designers took such pains to make the restaurant feel intimate. (On one of my visits, Bellota's staff had colonized the corridor for family meal, which made it less alienating somehow.) Few people will get away without having to break the spell, either, because service at Bellota tends toward the relaxed, and the paellas take up to 40 minutes to prepare, anyhow.

After the sudden closure of Oro and announced closure of Cadence, it's getting harder not to look at the debut of a big, expensive, ambitious SoMa restaurant tucked inside the corporate headquarters of a major tech player without thinking, “Good food or not, will this place exist in a year's time?” No disrespect to the teams behind Oro or Cadence, but Bellota has a few things going for it.

First, its corporate parent, The Absinthe Group, has succeeded time and again in places like Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, Comstock Saloon, and Boxing Room. Second, and probably more indicative of long-term success, the menu and decor aren't quite as out there: no load-bearing whale-ribcage walls, no blind tasting menus, and no menu categories called “In the Ground or On a Stem.” Rather, Bellota has some old-school touches, like live music (a piano player one night, a Spanish guitarist another) and anxious-looking managerial types monitoring the floor for the front-of-house equivalent of M.O.O.P. More intangibly, Bellota has serious sex appeal. A full-on tech downturn could have catastrophic consequences — I'm mostly thinking of a Trump-Shkreli ticket winning in November, although a Market Square emptied of Twitter, Bon Marche, Dirty Water, and The Market would be unfortunate as well — but odds are this acorn will grow big.

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