to my fellow sf bay area chowhounds (and anybody else who happens to be reading this post):
just wanted to introduce myself to everyone out here since i moved to the bay area several months ago from new york where i used to post quite regularly on chowhound, and haven't really had time yet with the new job and all to really chime in over here (that plus the fact that i needed to get acclimated restaurant-wise and nothing's really blown me away enough to compel me to post (a few have come close and i'll mention them at some point)). until now.
this past friday, my girlf- i mean, fiancee (still trying to get used to saying that - just got engaged) said she felt like tapas, and since it's pretty rare for either of us to actually voice a preference (come on, i know you've been there), i whipped open the san mateo county central yellow pages (we live in san mateo) and read thru the entire restaurant listing (not something i'd recommend to anyone who values their time, okay i'm not one of them) and the closest thing we found was something called johnny pancha's mexican grill or something like that that claimed to be a spanish restaurant (yeah right). for obvious reasons (not the least of which was that its address was listed as crystal springs mall) we decided to skip the mexican grill and head into town where i had sworn from my many wanderings that there was a spanish restaurant somewhere on one of the side streets.
sure enough, right there on 234 South B Street between 2nd and 3rd avenue we saw a sign for ole espana (as in olay! espanya, not old espana - a distinction you will be singing to yourself after having eaten there, believe me). we were a little hesitant at first because the tiny first floor was empty and looked none too promising, but a friendly guy with a mustache called out to us, asked if we were there for dinner, and then led us upstairs to where the actual dining room was located.
the decor is nice, nothing too fancy, some exposed brick and plenty of space. i was pleasantly surprised to find a list of decent riojas all reasonably priced. from the bottles i recognized, they certainly didn't come close to the 300% markup most places charged. and though i've never heard of it, a 1989 (i repeat 19 -8- 9) campo viejo gran reserva for $45 had to be a relative bargain so i ordered that one. and it turned out to be a really nice bottle, which really opened up after a few minutes, and went exceptionally well with the food.
ah, yes, the food. what struck both of us about the menu was the great list of choices, many of which we had never heard of before but all of which sounded really good. we decided to go with 5 tapas, though the waittress recommended some of the main dishes as well (and as i told my fiancee (yeah baby), we'd be back there as many times as it took to try everything on that menu). we ordered the classic tortilla, the gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), albondigas (meatballs), the pimientos de piquillo (a house specialty according to the waittress) and one of the daily specials, buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes and a cilantro dressing.
the buffalo mozzarella special was amazing. one bite of that and i knew this meal was going to be good. right off the bat, the first thing i noticed was how fresh everything was, down to the lettuce which they used as garnish. the mozzarella was superb, just the right texture, not too salty, obviously of superior quality. and the cilantro and other herbs and spices mixed on top complemented the cheese and tomato perfectly, not overpowering at all which you might expect, but subtle and an exciting distinction from the mozzarella and tomato you would get at an italian restaurant.
i think sometimes the simplest dishes are the hardest to make really well, so when i bit into the tortilla, i knew for sure that the man in the kitchen had skills. the tortilla struck the perfect balance of egg, potato and onion, the sweetness of the onion tempered beautifully by the other two, the density of the combination as if out of a textbook. my friend mike yu (another fellow chowhound), who introduced me to this simple dish, would do well to fly out all the way from korea to eat this, fly back and be perfectly content.
even the albondigas, usually an afterthought in most tapas places, you could tell were made with care and attention. not hard and tasteless like every other place in new york i've had these, but tender and flavorful, with chopped almonds and a variety of spices to make it a dish you really needed to think about.
but the real killer were the pimientos de piquillo, red peppers imported from spain, stuffed with seafood and topped with lobster sauce. i don't have the adjectives to describe how good they were, other than to say that the dish rivaled things i've had at places like nobu in new york (though that was japanese food of course) at half the price and without the hassle of getting a reservation. the peppers themselves are amazingly sweet, and surprisingly soft, the seafood stuffing light, almost cheeselike, like melted ricotta, and the lobster sauce just the right temperament of added flavor and not the distraction you'd expect it to be. each pepper was topped with a couple of roasted pinenuts which was pure genius, something without which, you might not notice, but with them, really puts the dish over the top. they say that god is in the details, and if that's true, then god is all over this place.
that's about the highest compliment i can pay to this place, other than to say that it reminds me of something like the restaurant in the movie "big night" (except the beauty of it is, that was the movies and this place is real) or a place in new york called giorgio's trattoria which i luckily found before i left - one of those rare places nowadays where they care about the food above all else, a place where the chef really takes pride in his work and where you know that you're going to get the real thing and not some dumbed down americanized version that caters to the masses so that bubba can have his burrito with kraft slices.
this place is a treasure, a real gem, the kind of place that justifies chowhound's existence and restores your faith in restaurants in general. you won't find this in zagat, or any guide book and damn sure not in the yellow pages (at least not this year) and i'm letting you know because these people deserve to be recognized and that as chowhounds, you can appreciate a place like this, or rather, like me, you live for places like this. this place made my weekend (well, my new set of golf clubs didn't hurt either, but anyway). too many times places like this will go under because it's hidden on some side street on the second floor of some building nobody would bother entering if they weren't feeling a bit daring. please, do yourselves the favor of checking this place out before it suffers that fate, or even starts that downhill slide because it realizes it's a business and needs to make money (see reference above to bubba). i guarantee you'll feel the same way we did and maybe we can keep this place going and its integrity intact.
whoa, got a little carried away there, sorry about that, but it's just been so long since i've been to a really good restaurant like that and i can hardly contain myself. i do have to say, that the only disappointing thing about the place were the gambas al ajillo. the shrimp never absorbed the garlic sauce, and the garlic sauce itself was a bit flat. but hey, a couple misses here and there are nothing compared to a bunch of home runs. the other minor drawback is that for tapas, the price is a bit higher than usual (about $8.95 per dish, and only about three items per dish) but again, for that quality, i'm more than happy to pay those prices.
by the way, the people there are super nice (they'll even give you a tour of their adjoining nightclub which they also own) and we found out that the place has been open for 3 months and that the chef comes from spain, the island of mallorca to be exact, and they import a lot of their ingredients, serrano ham, peppers, olives, cheeses, directly from spain. now that's what i'm talking about.
sorry for the long post, but i wanted to get everything right, or as close to right as i could, because i felt it was the only way to do the place justice. well, let me know if you go there and what you think and if i'm completely off my rocker with how good it is. for all i know, mr. chef from mallorca was doing a one night engagement. though i doubt it. and if you see me and my fiancee there, say hi, i'm the guy with the big goofy grin on my face, and my fiancee is the one looking really embarrassed to be with me. :-) take care.
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