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Gratitude for a New Café 

Satisfying Spanish cooking at the Café Bella Vista in the Mission

Wednesday, Aug 24 2005
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As I hungrily drove toward Café Bella Vista for lunch, I wondered if I was heading there because I really needed to taste a few more dishes after my delightful dinner the week before, or whether it was just greediness that made this second meal seem necessary. I was also cursing the work ethic of most of my friends, which made it impossible for them to join me for lunch, even the ones who didn't do a 9-to-5. I'd called a laundry list of the usual suspects with no success, leaving the house on my own after trying Jane at work: "I've paged her and there's no answer," the receptionist told me cheerily. "Maybe she's left for lunch."

Just as I was wondering why I didn't have more slackers and flâneurs among my dining companions, I was astonished to spy Jane, sitting at a sidewalk table outside Café Gratitude. When my enthusiastic honking didn't turn her head in my direction, I pulled over, sloppily, to the curb and leapt out, babbling incoherently that I'd just phoned to invite her to lunch two blocks away. I think Jane and her bemused companion (a Von Stroheim, no relation) would have joined me if their own raw vegan lunch -- thickets of greens topped with a variety of dips, surrounded by chips and crackers -- hadn't just been served. But Jane agreed to wander over and join me for dessert afterwards.

I hopped back in my car and turned the key, only to be greeted by that embarrassing dying wheeze that means a dead battery. I couldn't believe it. So I sat in the car for a couple of minutes before trying again, and again, until I acknowledged defeat, phoned AAA (reaching an unusually motherly and sympathetic operator), and rejoined Jane and V.S. for a couple of nibbles. (They had good guacamole and sunflower chili pâté that mostly tasted hot on the I Am Honoring plate; excellent tapenade, aka I Am Opulent, with disappointing thick crackers that must have been very labor-intensive, seedy chips that were beautiful to look at but dull in the mouth, and surprisingly limp cress.) I also sipped of their beverages: a lemony I Am Sassy for Jane and a gingery I Am Effervescent for Von Stroheim, though they both tasted more like I Am Weak to me.

Within a very few minutes Larry's Tow arrived, started me up, and sent me on my way to the Bayshore for half-an-hour's recharging. The day was bright and beautiful, the water glittered blue and silver and green -- a much belle-er vista than the urban one seen from the café I was looking forward to lunching at. I was feeling gratitude to AAA and Larry's Tow and the munificent god or goddess that had mystically placed Jane's bright head on my path. I turned back. As I drove up 24th toward Harrison, I passed a long funeral cortege: almost too obvious a symbol. "I Am Alive," I thought, "and I Am Hungry, and I Am About to Eat Something Good."

My certainty was due to the excellent dinner I had consumed at Café Bella Vista on the previous Friday. Dinner was something of a command performance: Heftsi had informed me that I was to take her and my mother out to dinner, because her partner David and my father were going to their monthly poker game that night. "OK," I thought, even though Fridays are not my favorite night to go out, and chose the Bella Vista because I knew Heftsi didn't eat meat, and its elaborate Web site (complete with music, oy vey) mentioned combining "seafood and garlic in various ways you would find on many a menu in Spain."

On the way there, when I told them we were going to eat Spanish seafood, Heftsi was overjoyed: On a recent trip to Barcelona, she had eaten paella every night. When we entered the place, I was surprised: I'd expected a much fancier room, but the low-ceilinged, modestly decorated corner space could have been the setting for any kind of restaurant, from a coffee shop to a Chinese joint. It seemed that half the room was devoted to an entirely open kitchen, separated from the room by a counter; we asked to be moved from the first table at which we were seated, because the bright lights mounted over the stove were shining directly into our eyes.

Once seated in the corner, we perused the menu, and I was sorry not to see paella listed. I decided, however, that we could assemble a facsimile by ordering a side of saffron rice and a number of tapas, such as steamed mussels (mejillones a la marinera) and sautéed prawns (gambas al ajillo). That workaround proved unnecessary when our server told us the happy news that the night's specials included seafood paella, in three sizes. We chose the medium, along with a number of other dishes. The server also won our hearts by offering to make up a fresh lemonade, not on the menu, for my mother, arriving back at the table in record speed with an icy pitcher of exceptionally good lemonade, pretty with sliced lemons, and enough for all of us, along with my glass of fruity red sangría and Heftsi's glass of Salmon Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.

We started with sopa de guisantes con jamon, a fabulous thick pea soup studded with ham and made with both dried and fresh (well, probably fresh-frozen) peas for me; gazpacho andaluz for my mom (I could tell she'd expected a chunkier soup than this thin, tomatoey broth with minced vegetables, but I found it refreshing); and a tossed green salad for Heftsi, unremarkable on its own, but adorned with three big goat cheese croquettes, hot and melting-soft under their thin bread-crumbs coating. An amazingly generous bowl of tangled, supple silvery-white anchovies cured in vinegar arrived at the same time; we piled them on thin slices of baguette and consumed them with cries of joy, barely audible in competition with the Spanish guitarist who plied his trade a few feet from our table.

Next to arrive were the fried calamari, lightly battered tentacles and rings, good on their own and better with the lemony aïoli they came with. The calamari and anchovies were soon joined by a paella pan heaped with shrimp in the shell, mussels, clams, chunks of white fish, rings of calamari, nuggets of chorizo, peas, and strips of bright-red pimento; the abundance of delicious seafood hid the garlicky saffroned rice it was cooked with. (In fact, I could have used a little more rice.) We didn't need the other main course we'd ordered, duck confit, whose plump leg and thigh arrived atop white beans between two halves of a spicy sausage -- sort of a deconstructed Spanish cassoulet, but we enjoyed it.

We had so much of this tasty feast packed up to go that I was embarrassed to ask our server to add the half of the rich honeyed chocolate mousse we couldn't finish (we did better with the lighter flan and crème-brûlée-like crema catalana).

I yearned to return for Sunday brunch (whose enticing menu featured "Chef Felix's specialties," elaborate egg dishes including my pick, Huevos Escalfados Carlos V: poached egg on English muffins with spinach, jamon serrano, and pimenton hollandaise), but upon calling to ask when brunch started, I was told Chef Felix was on vacation for a couple of weeks and only the less-elaborate eggs any-style and omelettes from the regular breakfast menu were on offer. So I settled, gratefully, for a weekday lunch, at a window table, with a Bella Vista of the El Tonayense taco truck (featured in our Best of 2005) parked right outside on Harrison, and Jane walking in the door to join me.

I'd already ordered a sandwich, a bocadillo de lomo de cerdo con mermelada de cebolla, pimentos asados y aïoli, and a plate of sautéed mushrooms with garlic. Jane, still a bit peckish after her grazing down the street, ordered a tapas portion of sautéed garlic shrimp, and I added a side of saffron rice. The sandwich was enormous, on a puffy pale bun, thick slices of still-juicy roast pork loin that had been perked up on the grill, with slippery additions of sautéed onions, sliced roasted red bell pepper, and aïoli. It came sided with thick logs of garlic fries, steaming and floury. The tails-on shrimp were flash-cooked and easy to eat; the halved button mushrooms, still bouncy and flecked with garlic and chili pepper and exuding their own juices mingled with a little white wine, were much like the ones we made at home for ourselves, we agreed. Only the rice was a little disappointing: it had an off-taste, a bit like dishwater.

I had half the sandwich wrapped up to go, so this time I could enjoy all the chocolate mousse (topped with whipped cream from a can, alas), while we lingered, discussing Jane's exciting news: She's going to New York to attend cooking school. She's already found a place to live, in Jackson Heights, and we enthusiastically discussed the variety of food she'd find in the ethnically mixed neighborhood: Indian, Central American, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, barbecue, all tasty, all good value. "Café Bella Vista," I said, "would fit right in."

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Meredith Brody

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