The Spanish table

Pub date September 16, 2008


The waxing and waning of tapas fever reminds us, first, that it is in the nature of fevers to wax and wane. Today we love tapas — Spanish bar bites, basically — and tomorrow we will love American tapas, Cuban tapas, Peruvian and global tapas, tapas of every description, and soon enough we will be tired of all tapas. If this end-stage disillusionment hasn’t yet fully set in around here, the signs are building nonetheless.

An irony of the tapas craze is that tapas’ Spanish roots have been obscured by the boundless enthusiasm with which they’ve been elaborated. The word itself has slightly slipped off its foundations; in recent years we’ve spoken often of "small" or "shareable" plates as of tapas. Then there are the Mediterranean meze platters. Spain? What’s that? Did someone mention paella?

If Spain has a national dish, it would have to be paella, the rice-and-seafood stew (with chicken and, sometimes, sausage) that comes from the country’s southeastern Mediterranean coast and, ideally, is cooked over a wood fire in a special two-handled pan. (The word "paella" is thought to derive from the Latin, patella, meaning "shallow pan." In our time, patella is a medical term for the "shallow pan" of the kneecap.)
And the wood fire gives us a clue as to why Spanish cuisine, despite its many glories and nuances, has never been a runaway restaurant success in this country the way its near relation, Italian, has. Cooking any dish over a wood fire is tricky, and not many restaurants do it. A wood fire is a living entity, and managing it is an art not unlike that of snake charming. You can get bitten or burned, and the difference between a nice golden crust and a burned one at the bottom of your paella pan is the difference between a dish you can serve and eat or one you have to throw out.

It’s probably for this reason that most restaurant paellas seem rather cautiously prepared, on a better-safe-than-sorry principle. Restaurants don’t make money from burning expensive ingredients and putting them in the trash. In my experience, restaurant paellas never have a caramelized crust and always, for me, leave a slight pang of disappointment.

At Patio Español, perhaps the most authentic Spanish restaurant in a city that doesn’t have enough of them, the menu advised us that paella would be made to order and would take 25 minutes. These were encouraging signs. The paella then arrived in a proper paella pan — another encouraging sign — and was served tableside in the restaurant’s Old World, waistcoat style. But there was no crust of caramelized bomba rice at the bottom of our pan of paella valenciana ($21.50 per person, for two) — this version including slices of chorizo, the garlicky Spanish cured sausage, along with shrimp, clams, mussels, boneless chicken thighs, green peas, and red and green bell peppers — and our server rushed the pan away, as if clearing up an unfortunate spill.

I understood and forgave the hasty exit with the pan. We can’t blame restaurants for being careful about cooking a dish they really shouldn’t be cooking at all. Despite the lack of crust, Patio Español’s paella was tasty and convincing: plenty of seafood, nice color, the rice well-stained with saffron, the scale generous but not overwhelming.

It helped that just about everything else on the menu — along with several items not listed but brought to us anyway — was first-rate. The sourdough bread pulsed with gentle heat, and the tapas! Cold or warm, they were fine, beginning with a plate of chubby sardines in escabeche ($8.25). Escabeche is a preservation technique in which cooked fish (or other flesh) is marinated in a seasoned vinegar brine; the result is served cold and sometimes, as here, with an accompanying salad of slivered carrots, cucumber sticks, chunks of bell pepper, and microgreens. The word escabeche, incidentally, is thought to have a Perso-Arabic derivation, and that’s a reminder of the long Moorish presence in Iberia.

Pan a la catalana ($10) was marred, but only slightly, by the toughness of the tissue-thin slices of jamón serrano laid like bolts of carpet over a subfloor of toasted bread rounds. Better were the albondigas ($8.50), a clutch of buttery little meatballs in a garlicky tomato sauce. And then there was the roasted-garlic soup, which, despite its modest role as an opening act for the paella, was distinguished by a haunting richness similar to, but less sweet than, that of French onion soup. It was also lighter than its Gallic cousin, using a paprika-tinged vegetable stock instead of beef broth. As if to balance the twinkle-toed soup, the post-paella sweet, a chocolate torte ($8) plucked from the dessert cart, had an almost fudge-like denseness. To balance that: slices of kiwi and mango on the side.

The restaurant is part of the Union Español, a cultural center established in 1923 and resident at its present Excelsior District location since 1985. The building casts a strong spell; the main dining room has straw-colored walls, a cathedral ceiling supported by exposed beams, and a floor of earth-colored ceramic tiles. It’s handsome without straining to make a statement other than, This is a nice restaurant. Could there be a lesson here for us hyperactive and attention-seeking Americans?

The building was formally dedicated in 1987 by King Juan Carlos I, who bears the impressive surname de Borbón y Borbón. The Bourbons succeeded the Hapsburgs as rulers of Spain several centuries ago, though neither royal family can claim credit for kicking out the Moors. Note to the king and other prospective enjoyers of Patio Español’s roasted-garlic soup: chew a coffee bean.


Dinner: Wed.–Sun., 5–9:30 p.m.

Brunch: Sun., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.

2850 Alemany Blvd., SF

(415) 587-5117

Full bar


Moderately noisy

Wheelchair accessible