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Basquing in Tapas 

Wednesday, Jul 21 1999
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Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas, and they're some of the most interesting dishes at the new restaurant whose namesake they are. San Francisco's Basque cookery has been fading toward extinction for a couple of decades, so Pintxos (pronounced PEEN-chos) has arrived just in time to revive the breed.

North Beach used to harbor several Basque hotel obrero restaurants (workmen's hotels) that served huge multicourse meals as regular board for residents and as prix fixe dinners for visitors. Dockworkers and off-season Sierra sheepherders broke good Basque bread with poets, secretaries, and strippers, seated on long wooden benches at scarred wooden tables. Course after hearty course hit those tables, along with endless bottles of peasant wine -- but that was long ago and in another country. Only one Basque hotel (Des Alpes, still in North Beach) has survived. Pintxos has opened with an update of cuisine, but far away, at a higher price, and for a mainly younger crowd.

The restaurant is a natural for earthy-trendy Valencia Street. The long, high-ceilinged space has soft blue paint, a rustic wooden floor, and tabletops of interestingly weathered wood given a gleaming, satiny finish by an epoxy glaze. The front room has conventional table seating, while farther back there's a long shiny wooden bar along one wall facing a series of banquettes with the tables spaced closely enough to foster conversation between neighbors. You could say it's an artful pomo replica of our old Basque boardinghouses, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Spanish music plays softly, so when the room gets noisy, the clamor isn't the forced party atmosphere that so many restaurants create deliberately -- it's just the sound of people having fun.

Pintxos' menu, a combination of Basque and Spanish dishes, is devised by chef Bernat Dones, freshly arrived from Barcelona, where he cooked in several popular restaurants. Co-owner Pablo Zubicaray comes from Thirsty Bear, the SOMA tapas bar/brewpub. But Pintxos' pintxos, occupying half the menu, run larger and heartier than their Spanish counterparts. When we ordered a half-dozen of them, our server graciously offered to separate our dinner into as many courses as we wanted. We settled on three: cold appetizers, warm ones, and entrees.

Exqueixada ($6.50) really was pretty exquisite: Fine, ripe tomato halves were hollowed out and filled with mild pickled onions, grated tomato pulp, and marinated salt cod so moist it tasted like fresh ceviche, set over frisee speckled with bits of strong, delicious black olives. Escalivada ($6) was a large square of roasted eggplant topped with bell pepper, each quarter crowned with a savory black olive rolled inside a coil of dryish, salty anchovy. Ensalada de vieras con almendras ($8.25) was a salad of flawlessly grilled sea scallops over greens scattered with deeply toasted sliced almonds and diced mango. A seductive lime and mustard vinaigrette dressed the spring mix.

We were also tickled by albondigas de pescado ($7), ambrosial fish-balls of shrimp and a clean-flavored whitefish (perhaps cod) in a crisp, very savory batter. The menu says they're served in a light shrimp bisque; these were served over salad, but it seems ungentlemanly to quibble, given their vibrant flavor. Piquillos rellemos de pescado ($7.50) were mild red Spanish peppers filled with squid and rockfish, served over a squid ink sauce. The filling was deliberately, emphatically fishy, with notes of sweetness and vinegar and just a touch of piquancy from the pepper juices. Codorniz al oporto ($7.25), quail in port sauce, had two tiny, stringy leg-thigh pieces perched atop two minuscule squares of juicier breast meat, in a suave, subtle port sauce, with a mound of pleasant house-made applesauce alongside.

However tiny the quail portion, main courses returned to big Basque form. Of those we tried, the most lovable was pollo guisado a la cerveza ($12.50), half a chicken cooked in beer. Resembling Southern American "smothered chicken," the nicely cooked pieces were bathed in a rich, flour-thickened beer sauce, with prunes and pine nuts -- easily translated comfort food from a different culture that also understands comfort. Another hit with a homemade flavor was lubina con muselina ($17), pearly moist Chilean sea bass fillet with a "mousseline" coating of a light creamy garlic mayonnaise. (Don't order this expecting France's hollandaise-cream "mousseline.")

Escabeche de conejo ($15) had moist, tender rabbit piled with traditional pickled carrots and onions, in a mixture of oil and vinegar redolent of paprika, bay leaves, thyme, and cloves. Alas, escabeche needs flavorful oil (for instance, olive) to unite the flavors, but I'd guess this version had cheap, healthy, and unspeakably bland canola, as it seemed afloat in generic grease. Another dish that needed work was milhojas de verduras ($9.50), a vegetable "napoleon" evidently designed -- or overdesigned -- so that vegetarians can get something to eat. None of us could swallow more than a couple of bites of the stack of dry, gritty, undercooked eggplant and yam slices, conventionally topped with roast tomato, basil, and goat cheese. There's also a vegetarian paella and several vegan side dishes, but somehow or other, I suspect that vegetarianism is not a native Basque concept.

The wine list, about two-thirds Spanish and the rest Californian, includes a dozen choices by the glass ($5 to $8). Bottle prices range from $18 to $60, with plenty in the lower range (including the lively, unpretentious Vega Sindoa chardonnay, which should have arrived by the time you read this). The list is divided into descriptive groups ("crisp, delicate ...," "soft, creamy ...," etc.), and staffers or co-owner Zubicaray will gladly help you navigate the largely unfamiliar array.

After a long restaurant meal, I regard desserts with dread -- but those at Pintxos ($5.50 each) were nearly featherweight and not oversweet. A pear and almond tart had nutmeg-scented fruit on a buttery, crumbly short crust. (A scoop of mint ice cream on the side seemed irrelevant.) Chocolate cake, served with unsweetened whipped cream and berry coulis, was bittersweet and airy, with a dark chocolate glaze and a thin interlayer of real-butter chocolate buttercream. And as a grace note, instead of the usual sugar cube, my espresso came with a cocoa-almond truffle.

Pintxos
557 Valencia (at 16th Street), 565-0207. Open Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Lunch service starts in late July. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: not too bad weeknights, very difficult week-ends. Muni: 26 Valencia, 53 Southern Heights, and all Mission Street buses (and BART) one block away. Sound level: lively but not painful.

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Naomi Wise

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