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Restaurants & Bars 3

Good Cuban @ Laurels

Spencer | May 7, 200312:09 AM

Laurels Restaurant
205 Oak at Gough
San Francisco
415-934-1574 fax
lunch and dinner

Partner said it received good reviews on SF Gate, but when the five of us showed up at Laurels Restaurant on Saturday night, only one of the twelve tables in the small Hayes Valley Cuban restaurant was occupied. We nearly skipped our eight o’clock reservation to head elsewhere. Good thing we didn’t. We knew not everyone eats meat and potatoes; someone should have reminded us that not everyone eats at meat-and-potatoes hours. By the time we were in final approach of the end of dinner the restaurant was full, and we certainly didn’t hear any complaining.

Her name was Deneya, and she fielded everything we could throw at her. We showed up twenty minutes late. No problem. We ordered in English, in Italian, and Spanish so broken all that emerged was “me gusta comer ---.” We brought our own wine, then ordered from the menu. We swapped plates, stole from eachother, shared entrees, dissected the deserts. Partner, ever exuberant, spilled wine across the table at me. No problem. She kept us in line like a lioness might control rowdy cubs. We were treated well, and she earned her tip.

One app, five entrees, three deserts, one bottle of wine, and the tip. $38/person.

M ordered an appetizer, and then gave us the kangaroo stare when we only ordered main courses. No problem, we all helped ourselves to his tamales de puerco. Melt-in-your-mouth meat, stone-ground corn, full flavor. Paired with a Capçanes Mas Donis 2000 (old vine Grenache and hillside Syrah from Spain) I picked out at Coit, we were well on our way.

M followed that up with an ensalada cesar con pollo, which he only shared a bit of. I watched the gradual disappearance of the fresh romaine abundantly topped with slices of grilled chicken, well sauced and parmed.

Partner and J had rabbit, the conejo guisado recommended by Deneya. Days later, Partner still runs around like a kid shouting conejo, conejo, conejo. A whole half rabbit for each, pan seared and jumping across their plates in a sweet wine, tomato, onion and lemon marinade, served with crown of fried plantains that mostly wound up in my belly.

L had salmon con crema de ajo, described as “grilled fresh Alaskan salmon with creamy garlic mushroom caper sauce served with rice and vegetables.” Seemed to enjoy it as well.

“Me gusta comer la paella.” I had said, and I did. I had learned to make paella from the new aristocracy (a dry cleaning monopoly) in Cadiz a long time ago, but years in Italy and Turkey have focused my culinary expeditions on central and eastern Mediterranean. My paella pan has sat unused for too long. How better to return to this regal dish than through an indoctrination a la Cubana?
“Traditional Spanish yellow rice with chicken, Spanish sausage,black tiger prawns, scallops, calamari, mussels, and clams.” Unable to arrange for a partner, I ordered the single portion ($18 single; $25 for two), but what arrived could easily have fed two, or even three after appetizers. The deep dish plate was chock-a-block with that yellow Spanish saffron rice (perfectly cooked in the seafood and meat broths; soft enough to eat freely, dry enough to be fork-friendly) with fresh peas and all lots of tender meats, each retaining its own flavor while contributing to the whole. The calamari was not chewy, the Spanish sausage were spicy but light, the chicken tasted the way chicken should taste (rich, full of flavor), the mussels and clams and fish were all rich and fresh and moist. “Me gusta comer la paella” has a new lease on life, and I’ll be bringing out my paella pan and digging up that old Sanchez y Villar recipe: hurriedly given to me in the three minutes before I boarded the night train from Cadiz to Madrid in the spring of 1990.

chicken or meat (veal/pork), or seafood in shell

Prepare rice with saffron and set aside
Chop onion, olive, garlic, tomato, and bell pepper
Sauté together in olive oil, drain and set aside
Sauté chunks of chicken, veal, or pork in olive oil, drain and set aside
Combine in paella pan, top with seafood, and bake in oven

We had room for deserts, or if not room, that mind-over-matter ability to make room when the desire is strong. Tres Leches, flan chocolato, and arroz con leche. The tres leches went quickly under the forks of all, although it was not regarded as the best exemplar of those more experienced with this dish. The flan was well bitten into, but there’s something about true traditional flan that floats my boat more than a chocolate version (likewise I’m not a fan of vanilla-orange tiramisu, but that’s another cuisine and another review). The rice pudding in a blue glass parfait and was tasty but not as smooth or flavorful as the versions I remember from Spain (or the Turkish equivalent sutlac).

Perhaps we really didn’t have space for desert. We had eaten like kings, consuming in quantity but leaving extra on the plate… Nobody complained though.

With a few more words with Deneya and first-night waiter Shawn, a glimpse into executive chef Ricardo’s kitchen, a big fat cigar, and one last wave, we were off into the dark San Francisco night well fed and happy.

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