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Basque to the Future 


Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
I first dined at Pastis, which has now become Piperade, late last year. Judging by my superb braised veal cheeks with winter root vegetables, Pastis did not, by any means, need a revamp. Chef/owner Gerald Hirigoyen (most noted for his other restaurant, Fringale) revamped anyway, giving the place a warmer, more casual feel. He tore out the old banquettes, installed pale hardwood floors, and centered the room around a family-style table set under a chandelier (picture hoops of iron bristling with wine bottles) more or less identical to the one at my favorite downtown happy-hour bar, the boho-chic Tunnel Top. The waitstaff now wears jeans, the prices have dropped to suit these leaner times, and the old French-Basque menu has been replaced by "West Coast Basque" cuisine, which blends the rustic flavors of the Pyrenees with a restrained, big-city creativity.

For some, the changes may take a little getting used to. One night, as I sat at the bar, an older gent who's been a regular at both incarnations glanced cautiously over his shoulder, then told me he preferred the previous menu. In all fairness, though, my new friend also said he's more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy (as evidenced by his rack of lamb with frites). I understood the man's dilemma -- the new menu is adventurous, but it also feels like a breath of fresh air. Hirigoyen's cooking continues to shine, and his combinations are far more daring -- and more memorable -- than those served at so many of the cozy trattorias, quaint bistros, and upscale comfort-food emporiums that have opened in San Francisco during the past year.

Piperade does have a few rough edges, most having to do with the service. During one visit, the hostess sent Rachel and me to the bar when we arrived, where we spent a good 15 minutes staring at an empty table, growing increasingly disgruntled as we wondered who could possibly have a more important reservation than ours. The answer presented itself shortly: After we took our seats (at the table we'd been contemplating), a woman arrived. She resembled the hostess so profoundly the two could only have been mother and daughter. Our French-speaking waitress, meanwhile, tried to engage us in witty banter.

"I could tell you did not like it," she said, noting a dish I'd consumed down to the last scrap. Her tone was so earnest that she could have been delivering the 10 o'clock news. I just sat there for a minute -- ah, a joke -- then forced an awkward chuckle. Later, I cringed as the same waitress tripped over a chair at our table, then did the same at someone else's table. By the time dinner was over, she'd forgotten to ask if we wanted dessert and lost our check in the new computer system. It was, to say the least, a bad night.

The rest of the operation is solid, however. The new menu tops out at $17, and rivals just about any similarly priced bill of fare in these parts. The wine list is a beast: nearly 150 vintages ($20-550, 10 choices by the glass) cataloged in a mini photo album that runs from Basque whites and reds to "Rhône riders," "Unusual suspects," and "Unique blancs." By-the-glass selections include a forgettable Bonaccorsi pinot noir, but also a sublime Chateau L'Hermitage Costieres de Nimes, an off-dry white with a subtle note of honey and a resonant, lingering finish.

At their best, Hirigoyen's latest creations speak of a chef at the top of his game. Many dishes are both strikingly simple and wonderfully complex, as was the case with our first appetizer, a layered terrine of ham and sheep's milk cheese. Seared to a scintillating crispness, the terrine struck the palate with a sharp, bacony savor that played beautifully off the mellow richness of the cheese. A bed of spiky frisée offered a perfect counterpoint, as did a condiment of sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts in fruity olive oil.

Other starters included a salad of bacalao (salt cod; avoid this one if you don't like "fishy" food) and chilled potatoes topped with roasted piquillo peppers, then accented with dabs of balsamic. Unlike the terrine, this plate didn't take us to the exquisite fringe of utter deliciousness, but it was a fine choice nonetheless. Skip the crab croquettes with piment d'espelette (Basque chili peppers); ours were as pasty as deep-fried balls of glue. The garlic soup, meanwhile, was the kind of dish that could warm a guy right down to his soul. A profoundly rich stock laced with egg and juicy rock shrimp came finished with parsley and chunks of wheaty, thick-crust bread.

Entrees didn't miss a beat. Our waitress won a few points by recommending the braised seafood and shellfish stew, a homey mélange of scallops, squid, fish, mussels, clams, and shrimp presented in a gorgeous stoneware bowl with a subtle red-pepper sauce. The Thursday special, rack of pork, consisted of a flavorful portion of loin served on the bone with roasted apple, well-buttered French green beans, and a tangy cider reduction. One of the more cosmic creations was sautéed squid with grapes and roasted fingerling potatoes, crowned with a thin slice of foie gras. Put simply, this preparation was a masterpiece: The grapes cut the luxuriousness of the foie gras, the squid was as toothsome as could be, and the dish came bathed in a sauce so irresistible I used an entire basket of bread to sop it up, then stared longingly toward the kitchen, wishing I could have more.

Desserts confirmed my suspicion that Piperade is one of the most exciting restaurants to open this year. An almond "nest" — a doughnut-shaped cake — arrived filled with honey ice cream, its sweetness balanced by the delicate flavor of the pastry. Better still was the gâteau basque, a melting, silky cake served with bright, fresh-tasting peach preserves. To finish, we made one last foray into new territory, sipping a dram of Charles Hours Jurançon, a fruity, spicy, barely sweet dessert wine.

Like my friend at the bar, I'll miss the old Pastis, but Piperade is a more than worthy replacement.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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