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04.03.2004

Restaurant Review: Piperade, San Francisco

I've now been to Piperade four times " thrice for dinner, once for lunch " and it is definitely one of my favorite recent additions to the restaurant scene in San Francisco. Located incongruously in "ad agency alley," the heart of manufactured image and soundbytes, Piperade consistently delivers some of the most authentically innovative and genuinely focused flavors that I have had the pleasure of eating in the last couple of years. Of course, I don't often get to eat Basque food, so it may be piperade.jpg that the North of Spain is semi-secret culinary paradise that we're all missing out on, but regardless, we have Chef Gerald Hirigoyen to thank for bringing it home to San Francisco.

Before I get to the food, I want to spend a little time talking about the design of the restaurant, which is beautifully done, and gracefully underscores and supports the dining experience as all good architecture and interior design should. The plain burgundy brick exterior opens onto a broad-beamed, single open room that feels so comfortable as to be out of place in the often austere trend of overdesigned dining rooms of many San Francisco restaurants. Partially this sense of comfort is due to the lighting which is masterfully done, a combination of amber colored indirect wall lighting and small overhead spots and floods, not too bright, not too dim. The lights illuminate a simple hardwood floor and mostly bolted, wood paneled walls bright beneath the blond timbers and dark background of the roof. The bar is a simple brushed steel which sits well in the colors of the room, letting the whole place settle somewhere between the rustic and the modern.

The tables are immaculately set with bright white linens and Piperade's signature table runners and offer seating for plenty of couples, groups of 4, as well as one family size table for larger groups. Unfortunately some of the tables are packed a little close together, and a couple of them are next to the narrow aisle by the bar, where all the traffic from the kitchen passes. There is a little seating out on the patio, replete with heat lamps, but the better experience is had inside. If you don't manage to get a table, the full menu is served at the bar, but be aware you will be sharing it with the overly creative, post-work beautiful people from the areas agencies, who on Friday afternoons and evenings stack the bar 3 or 4 deep, martinis in hand.

At most tables, however, the bar fades into the background to mix with the soft merengue and salsa music, and you are free to focus on the menu and the wine list, both of which give me goosebumps. Let's deal with the wine list straight off. Named one of the country's best new wine restaurants by Wine Spectator, the list is extensive and more importantly, generally free of the overly commercial crap that even some good restaurants can't resist putting on the menu just because it is expensive or a well known name. Selections from small producers abound, representing California, France, and of course, Spain, and spanning a comfortable range of price points. For a restaurant that hasn't been open that long, they also have an impressive library of older vintages from California. Also, if you have something special you'd like to bring, never fear, corkage is a mere $15, a refreshing and humble change from other fine SF restaurants who rudely insist on gouging you upwards of $25 to open your wine.

Piperade is one of those places where its extremely difficult to avoid ordering several appetizers, and as a result I'm tempted to add one or two more to my dining party when I contemplate going, if only to experience the broad assortment of dishes available. My past visits have resulted in a few standout favorites. One of the best appetizers I've had in years has got to be the grilled Artisan foie gras sautéed with Monterey squid, grapes and verjus. I also have to resist ordering the classic tapas-style spicy whole prawns with garlic, parsley and lemon each time I go. In the same vein, I can't resist one of the best lamb chops I've ever had in San Francisco which transcends its simple sea salt, sherry vinegar, and thyme preparation to be a mouthwatering, tender delight.

These well crafted dishes are brought to the table with a smooth professionalism of a well run front house, which can only be faulted for being a bit frantic at the height of the dinner hour. The waitstaff are extremely competent, unobtrusive, and supportive of your needs as they arise, but they do rush about sometimes, and don't have the polished calm of some finer restaurants. Despite this, the pace of the meal is measured and unhurried, allowing time for diners to share the dishes on the table, which invariable happens, and allowing time to enjoy your selection of wine. Chef Gerald constantly makes visits to the dining room to meet (and often seat) the customers and talk about food and wine with them (I've talked with him on 3 of the 4 occasions I have been there). This sort of interest in his patrons makes me even more of a fan, and promises to keep this restaurant fresh and tip top for years to come.

Be sure to sample some of the outstanding desserts and dessert wines available at the close of your meal, I suggest pairing the 2001 Clos Uroulat Jurancon with the Basque gateau (dense, moist almond cake) with mango coulis.

How much?: Dinner for two without wine will run you about $40-$50 a person, assuming a couple of small plates and a couple of entrees.

Piperade
1015 Battery Street (At Green)
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 391-2555

Reservations recommended for lunch and dinner. Parking can easily be found nearby in the evenings, including at pay lots on Broadway or the Embarcadero.

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