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September 04, 2009


Rosemary Toasted Almonds Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Laiola has closed

And now, some really excellent tapas.

I actually first hit Laiola back in January. I was in town to do some work with an old friend I hadn't seen in about ten years, and after knocking off work on my first day in town, discussion turned to where the crowd should go for some good wine and eats. Walkable, small plates, good Spanish wine -- everybody seemed to feel that Laiola fit the bill perfectly. The result? A dynamite meal. One of the best I'd had in some time. And here I was without a camera. No writeup for the blog. A tragedy.

I spent the next few months wondering if my enthusiasm for the place had been... enhanced... by the liberal amounts of wine that were flowing that evening. You know how it is. Hit just the right level of inebriation and suddenly everything tastes awesome. So when I was back in town a couple of weeks ago and was looking for a spot to grab dinner with another old friend, Laiola was the first place I thought of. I even warned her. I don't THINK it was the wine, but provided it wasn't, you're in for a great meal.

It wasn't the wine.

Chickpea CroquetasDominic Armato

Laiola can lend the wrong impression at the outset, at least to chow nerds who pride themselves on digging out the hidden gems. It's Spanish small plates, it's a wine bar, it's kinda dark, it's kinda hip, they play great alternative tunes -- in other words, on first blush it'd be easy to mistake it for one of the hordes of restaurants that are cynically trying to capture the young and moneyed crowd with whatever cuisine happens to be trendy at the moment. And yes, to some degree they're doing the same thing that everybody else is right now. They're just doing it exceptionally well. I don't give a damn if it's trendy. Laiola served me some of the purest, most explosive flavors I've had all year.

Heirloom Tomato "Tomàquet"Dominic Armato

The menu isn't straight-up traditional, but it also isn't going off in crazy directions simply for the sake of being different. They take a very thoughtful approach to Spanish-influenced small plates, working locally-available product into dishes that evoke the mother country. We started off with a bang, ordering one of the dishes that had made a major impression on me six months prior. The chickpea croquetas arrive, playfully arranged like mozzarella sticks stacked by a Lincoln Logs enthusiast, with a dollop of olive aioli casually plopped down on the side. They're pure, intense chickpea through and through, but the joy is in the texture, a baton with a light and crispy fried shell that encases a puree so smooth that it's almost like a volcanic, molten chickpea core. The first taste tells you that you should really let them cool a bit lest you risk injury, but you charge ahead and scald yourself anyway.

Basque Pepper ShrimpDominic Armato

It being mid-August and all, we felt it would have been irresponsible not to order something with fresh tomatoes, so we fulfilled the obligation by going with the heirloom tomato tomàquet. It was little more than some heavily toasted, crusty bread topped with three massive slabs of tomato, olive oil, a touch of vinegar, shallot and fresh oregano. The tomatoes were absolutely stunning, and the kitchen was smart enough to send them out mostly unadulterated. Half the battle is knowing when to do less, and here they hit it on the head. Another relatively simple dish was the Basque pepper shrimp, essentially gambas al ajillo that included ribbons of the sweet and ever so slightly spicy piquillo peppers so popular in the Basque region. The shrimp were beautifully tender and sweet, and the oil avoided the acrid pungency that is too often a hallmark of the dish, instead achieving a mellow but no less garlicky depth of flavor that made it unusually compelling.

Grilled Baby OctopusDominic Armato

The grilled baby octopus made for a lovely little plate, with charred tentacles reaching up from a chaotically colorful pile of tomatoes, peppers and beans, all dressed with olive oil saturated with minced fresh herbs. (Basil and mint, perhaps? I was too busy enjoying it to pay careful attention.) In a rare moment of merely very good, I thought the octopi could have used a little more oomph -- of what nature I'm not certain. But they were perfectly tender with just enough char to bring some fire to the plate, and the focus of the dish, intentionally or otherwise, was the vegetables anyway, bright and crisp and tasting of sunshine.

Fried Padrón PeppersDominic Armato

The simplest and yet one of the most enjoyable dishes of the evening was a pile of padrón peppers, which as far as I can tell had simply been fried and sprinkled with salt. Eating padrón peppers, apparently, is kind of like playing Russian roulette. Spanish roulette. Spanish Russian roulette, whatever. In any case, the peppers are mostly mild, a touch sweet and very green, reminiscent of a poblano to me. But your plate is strewn with little incognito firecrackers that are inexplicably far spicier than their brethren. Our server explained that this was not a freak occurrence, but rather one of the pepper's most endearing characteristics. Eating them was a bit of a game -- oh, that's nice... delicious... tasty... Woo! There's a hot one! But novelty aside, they really were delightful, possessing an almost snack-like quality that could motivate you to tear through a plate four times its size. The only potential knock is that they could have used a bit more salt, but that's being unkind. Besides which, I could have simply asked for some, but I was enjoying them too much to bother.

Pimentón Spiced PotatoesDominic Armato

The pimentón spiced potatoes, not a favorite of the evening but entirely worthy, were described as sort of like patatas bravas, but that doesn't really give you the angle. "One-note" may be a derogatory term when talking food, but here I'm not so sure it isn't a compliment. The note in question was pimentón, the smoky ground hot pepper which absolutely dominated the dish in almost every possible way. Potato wedges were fried and liberally dredged in the stuff, then served with an aioli that had been flavored with the same. Where the padrón peppers were spicy, green and vegetal, the potatoes brought a different kind of heat, smoky and earthy, spicy with both a hit of heat up front and a smoldering tail on the back end. Sophisticated, no, but very bold and rather enjoyable.

Grilled NectarinesDominic Armato

It was at this point that we very nearly called it quits, and this turned out to be a close call. Feeling as though we wanted to try one more dish, not wanting a full savory item but not wanting to do dessert either, I spied an item on the menu that looked as though it might possess some of that end-of-meal vibe without having to go full-on sweets. This turned out to be one of my favorite dishes of the year. We received a nectarine, halved and grilled hot enough to get some blackened char on the face and soften the edges while still leaving the center fairly fresh. The well left by the missing pit was filled with a sherry and tarragon vinaigrette that had been sweetened with a touch of honey, and the fruit was paired with a nearly fist-sized scoop of a house-made goat cheese that had the characteristic pungency of a chèvre but much smoother and milder, and an impossibly light and fluffy texture -- almost as much air as cheese -- reminiscent of the kind of fresh ricotta you get in Italy when it's no more than a few hours old. Total showstopper, and I couldn't have wished for a better finish to the meal -- or any meal, really.

On Wednesday, I wrote about Iluna Basque, where everything seemed technically correct, but nothing had any pop. And I wasn't looking for a lesson in contrasts, but one found me. Laiola is everything Iluna Basque is not, where the flavors are big and vibrant and the ingredients are alive, no matter how simply prepared they may be. This kitchen has a great touch, squeezing every bit of flavor out of what they're working with and doing so with little touches here and there that make the dishes theirs. Who knows, I'm probably setting impossibly high expectations. But the fact remains that two of the best meals I've had over the past year have both been at Laiola, and I look forward to the third, whenever that may be.

2031 Chestnut Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
Sun - Thu5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 11:00 PM


Great review, Dom. Definately a step up from the Spanish fare that was there I when I lived and worked there.

I've said before that I am not an adventurous eater, but damn, you make me wish I was. Unfortunately, all that beautiful, marvelous looking food would be wasted on my plebian palate. However, I do love reading about it.

"I've said before that I am not an adventurous eater, but damn, you make me wish I was. Unfortunately, all that beautiful, marvelous looking food would be wasted on my plebian palate."

I bet you sell yourself short, Karen. One thing about this kind of ingredient-focused food is that you don't need to be a food nerd to appreciate it. It just tastes GOOD. If you're in the bay area, I'd urge you to go sometime.

I woke up literally five minutes ago and grabbed my laptop instead of getting up and possibly waking the kids. Thanks a lot. This was a great write up with some great shots and now I'm starving.

Great review. You always make the food come alive. That being said when I go to a Tapas place, no matter how good, I end up feeling a little ripped off. It always ends up being more expensive than if I went to a non-Tapas restaurant.
The LA Times reviewed Stefan's new restaurant. It got a good review but it's not getting customers. And in addition to appetizers he also features what sounds more like Amuse Bouches than appetizers.


Can't speak to Stefan's place, obviously, but for the meal you see above, my friend and I split the bill. My half, plus a nice glass of Spanish wine, tax and tip was about $60.

Just FYI.

Re: Stefan, I recall reading something about a 'soft opening', and the reviewer does make a note of having visited just days after the restaurant began to operate.

Wow, Dom, now that meal would be a bargain. I lived in SF 29 years so I return frequently and this is now on the top of my list of where to go next time I'm there.

Karen, don't worry about being too "plebian". I am probably too far on the other side - if there is a lovely chicken dish and a frog brain dish I go for the new and as I watch my fellow diners I sometimes regret it.

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