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Spanish Fly 


Wednesday, Oct 2 2002
Earlier this year, a friend was kind enough to buy me dinner at a downtown seafood joint. Maybe "joint" isn't the right word: We dined at Aqua, a four-star temple of culinary showmanship, where the entrees start at $29. If you've ever wondered what a restaurant has to do to justify such prices, the answer is, everything. At Aqua, the décor is gorgeous, the food exquisite, and the wine list extensive enough to be used as summer reading. Dishes don't merely arrive -- they're presented, via precisely choreographed rituals. As our waiter finished a lengthy tableside deconstruction of my friend's lobster pot pie, he said my crispy-skin black bass was right behind him -- and voilà, another server set it down. Before dinner, my friend told me to order whatever I wanted, and in the end she paid dearly for such extravagance: Between food, wine, tax, and tip, the bill totaled a cool $270.

Now flash to Lorca, a cozy Spanish restaurant in the heart of the Mission, where you can experience a similar brand of dazzle, courtesy of a seven-course tasting menu -- for $28. Put simply, this is one of the best deals in town. Before taking over the stoves three months ago, chef Pepe Desvalls (a Catalan from Barcelona) spent more than a decade cooking his way across Europe and South America, the most notable stop being Spain's world-famous El Bulli. He seems to have picked up a few tricks along the way: At Lorca, clean, subtle flavors meet finely honed technique and the kind of presentation one would expect for twice the price. In a different location, Lorca would probably be packed out the door every night. As is, the place is just getting by down on mid-24th Street, an area yet to be discovered by the hordes of diners and barhoppers on nearby Valencia.

In other words, you can stroll right into Lorca on weekday nights and have a seat in the time it takes to say, "In the parched path/ I have seen the good lizard/ (one drop of crocodile)/ meditating" (from "The Old Lizard," a poem by the restaurant's namesake, Federico García Lorca). A small tapas bar leads to a dimly lit dining room with sweeping windows, white tablecloths, and burnished chandeliers. Colorful paintings of jazz musicians add a little funk to the experience, which begins with a free glass of dry sherry topped with a tiny olive cookie and an amuse-bouche such as braised beef in a smoky paprika sauce. The 20-bottle, almost exclusively Spanish wine list spans an unusual range: Humble choices (a fruity Talai-Berri Txakolina from the Basque Country; a tart, refreshing Viña Sastre rosé) share space with hard-to-find reserve wines priced from $65 to $525.

The food, on the other hand, is uniformly affordable, and almost ridiculously so if you choose the tasting menu. Lighter meals can be ordered a la carte, and no matter which route you opt for, the service and presentation are breathtaking. Consider our first appetizer: Our waiter arrived bearing a tremendous bowl and a white pitcher, pouring a delicate, herb-flecked potato cream soup over mushrooms and tiny pillows of scallop mousse. Globes of truffle oil danced across the soup's surface, adding a shimmering, earthy note. A more simple choice consisted of vibrant mixed greens tossed with cherry tomatoes, a tangy sherry vinaigrette, and samfaina (a Catalan-style ratatouille of eggplant, roasted peppers, and onion). Rice cremosa translated as a risottolike cake of slender, al dente grains baked with spinach, leek bouillon, and sweet, chewy raisins, topped with paper-thin fried greens.

During my a la carte visit, only one dish was off. A silky omelet, bathed with cream at the table, was accompanied by tiny, garlicky shrimp -- all good so far -- plus rubbery baby squid and a doughy cilantro biscuit better suited for pelting amateur poets than for human consumption. Lamb zacarron, on the other hand, was superb. A tender braised shank came with crispy fried potatoes, caramelized shallots, and a rich gravy suffused with a tantalizing undertone of mint.

As fine as all these dishes were (omelet excepted), Lorca really hit its stride with the seven-course tasting menu, which consists of smaller portions pulled from the ever-changing regular menu. Everyone at the table has to order the tasting menu, but I don't think anyone would regret the decision. We began with zucchini cream soup, poured from a pitcher like the potato soup, over a melting chicken dumpling, diced olives, and a quivering dab of Albariño aspic. Rich manchego crackers topped with shreds of serrano ham sandwiched a diced version of the samfaina salad -- a wonderful contrast of bright, crunchy greens and flavorful pastry. Next came the mar y montaña -- petals of fried pasta folded around a cylinder of baked rice topped with aioli and a deep-fried baby octopus whose tentacles radiated outward like a sunburst. This delectable, picture-perfect creation was set over a haunting dill vinaigrette.

Then chef Pepe really poured it on. A paupiette of poached sole over sautéed spinach was finished (again at the table) with an intense, garlic-infused cream. A crayfish leaned against the delicate fish like a tiny red man playing an oversize drum. Savory courses came to an end with a cube of braised beef served over Spanish black beans with a dab of velvety potato purée and a crumbly pistachio cookie. The dish was finished with a sweet red-wine reduction drizzled along one side of the plate so that it oozed down to join the other ingredients as we ate.

Our first dessert -- you get two with the tasting menu -- was itself a multifaceted production. We were told to eat from one side of the plate to the other: A chewy rice cake led to a moist chocolate cake and a wafer-thin anise cookie, then to shot glasses filled with strawberry cream sauce, chopped pistachios, and a curlicue of caramelized sugar. Crema catalana, the centerpiece of our final dessert, was frozen hard as granite when it arrived, but softened within a few minutes. The crema was plated in a pool of star anise soup with figs, strawberries, and blueberries, then finished with a biting vodka flambé. We ended our visit with a glass of amontillado, a sweeter, duskier version of the dry sherry with which we'd begun.

Sometimes a restaurant exceeds expectations; at others, as at Lorca, it shatters them.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin


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