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September 02, 2009

Iluna Basque

Prawns Cazuela Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Iluna Basque has closed

With this post, I may have doomed Mattin Noblia.

Only once before have I posted about a Top Chef contestant's restaurant, and she was eliminated that very night. Now, I'm not generally one to suggest that I wield such power -- especially since, y'know, the shows were taped months ago -- and yet, cosmic coincidences such as this cannot be ignored. Having spent so much time writing about it, clearly my connection to the show has crossed into the metaphysical realm. As you watch tonight's episode, do so with a mindful eye turned towards the Frenchman in the jaunty red neckerchief.

Piquillo Peppers with BacalaoDominic Armato

Actually, "Frenchman" isn't really specific enough. Mattin is Basque, meaning that he hails from the Basque Region, a little crook in the neck of France where she meets Spain along the Atlantic ocean. It's a region known for its unique culture... about which I know very little, and as such I will avoid pretending that I do. But what I do know is that the French food of the Basque Region is heavily influenced by nearby Spain, often appearing more Spanish than French. This was the food of Noblia's youth, and after training in France, he came to the U.S. and opened his restaurant at an absurdly young age (23), and it remains open six years later, still in the same location in San Francisco's North Beach -- no small feat.

Shaved Potatoes with Herbs & VinegarDominic Armato

So about a month and a half ago, when an old friend and I had the good forture to be in San Francisco at the same time, we decided it would be fun to do a little Top Chef scouting before the season started. Upon our arrival, it was immediately evident that Noblia can't be accused of gilding the lily. What he's opened is a small neighborhood wine and tapas bar, where most of the food comes on small plates and seems more influenced by his jaunts across the Spanish border while growing up. In many ways, this is rather refreshing. In a culinary world where so many young hotshots are trying to reinvent the wheel and... oh, gosh... trying out for cooking reality shows, it's kind of nice to hear that a 23-year-old started his career by keeping things simple. Mmmmmmm, perhaps a little too simple.

Stuffed Calamari in Ink SauceDominic Armato

We started by going straight to the piquillo peppers. Piquillo peppers are a specialty of the region. They're mostly sweet, just a touch spicy, fire engine red and seemingly in just about everything. Here, they were stuffed with sort of a bacalao brandade, and doused with a simple tomato sauce. The peppers were sweet, the fish was creamy, the tomatoes were fine... it was a good dish. And this would quickly become the theme for the evening. Up next were a pile of fried potatoes, cut thin and wide like popsicle sticks, doused in vinegar and salt, topped with crispy fried basil and served with a dipping sauce the nature of which I'm embarrassed I can't recall. There really wasn't enough of the basil to make an impact, and the sauce was smooth and creamy and a lovely complement, but the potatoes were fine. Not too crisp, but fresh, and made tart by what I assume was a splash of sherry vinegar. It was a good dish.

Shrimp and Potato CroquetasDominic Armato

Our next dish broke through the, "hey, it's okay" barrier, which is good because Noblia had listed it in his Top Chef bio as a specialty. Calamari are stuffed with shrimp, seared and served over spanish rice that's doused in a creamy squid ink sauce and topped in... surprise... piquillo peppers. Ours was positively volcanic when it arrived. Those bubbles you see may have been frozen in time by the camera, but they looked like a science experiment to the naked eye. This was a big flavor dish with very forward seafood flavor, only enhanced by the creamy, sweet and every so slightly grungy squid ink sauce, for which I'm always a sucker. A very good dish.

Mussels with Parsley & Garlic ButterDominic Armato

Bringing us back down to our previous level of quiet restraint were the prawns cazuela, sweet and fresh and cooked in a lightly curried sauce, and I enjoyed them before taking a left turn into the mundane. I'd completely forgotten that we tried the shrimp and potato croquetas before discovering the photo this weekend, and now that I see them, I have absolutely no memory of consuming them, which means they must not have been particularly good or particularly bad. Mussels with parsley and garlic butter were similarly vanilla (figuratively, not literally), looking and tasting like every order of Escargots Bourguignons you've ever tried, but featuring a tender mussel in the center of every bite rather than a chewy snail.

Basque PizzaDominic Armato

The Basque pizza was downright mediocre, placing serrano ham and pungent etorki cheese atop an insipid little piece of bread that had the soul of something prepackaged. This was, to Noblia's credit, the only dish that was downright unfortunate. And though we had no business tasting even one more bite, we decided to finish the meal with another of his stated specialties, boudin noir with caramelized apples. The boudin noir was rather enjoyable, rich and dark and a little funky. And the hot, sweet, gooey caramelized apples made a great pair, only I could have used fewer of them. More sausage, less apple makes this a better dish. But the depth of the boudin noir made it one of the evening's better offerings.

Boudin Noir with Caramelized ApplesDominic Armato

Iluna Basque really did remind me of dining in Spain. It's been a while, but I remember that leisurely pace, sitting on the sidewalk, having a drink and getting a little bit to eat. North Beach, with its Italian population, even has a very European vibe to it in the summertime, which I've no doubt is partly what attracted Noblia to it. The problem is that while I wouldn't hesitate to drop in for a drink and a bite if I were in the neighborhood and looking to relax and waste some time, the food just isn't of a nature that would compel me to drive across town... or very far at all, really. It's almost all good. With the exception of the pizza, I couldn't fault it. But calamari aside, all of our dinner was ultimately forgettable, as evidenced by the fact that I even managed to forget about some of it in the ensuing month and a half. These weren't incredibly fresh, bold, big explosive flavors served on small plates. They were all... fine. And I don't mean to suggest for a moment that there's anything the least bit wrong with straight-up traditional tapas. I like that Noblia has created a casual little Euro-style neighborhood joint where you can get a glass of inexpensive wine and a decent bite to eat. But the truth is that for whatever reason, the flavors just didn't sing like they do at a great tapas place, and without exceptional flavor or some creative interest to hang my hat on, I just don't feel the least bit compelled in any way to return. Unless Noblia is stealthily capable of much more, I daresay the Top Chef judges will feel the same way after a few episodes.

Iluna Basque
701 Union Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Sun - Thu5:30 PM - 10:30 PM
Fri - Sat5:30 PM - 11:30 PM


Very Spanish indeed. Potatos with garlic aioli is a classic tapas. Croquetas de gambas less so, but I distinctly remember having them - and loving them - on the Calle Cuchilleros in Madrid.

When I lived in San Francisco there was a thin number of Spanish eateries. French, there were tons. Perhaps his continued success of the restaurant is that by being more Spanish than French, he fits a nice niche in a crowded market.

Great write-up.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of cooking raw hams like Serrano or Prosciutto; you lose all the texture, and the flavors get drowned out by the salt. The best part of the ham - the fat - turns into a disgusting pile of goo.

"When I lived in San Francisco there was a thin number of Spanish eateries. French, there were tons. Perhaps his continued success of the restaurant is that by being more Spanish than French, he fits a nice niche in a crowded market."

Wait until Friday for a study in contrasts, Anon Man. :-)

Just to nitpick: You make it sound as if the Basque Country is in France, when the majority of it is in Spain, and the majority of Basques are Spaniards.

"Just to nitpick: You make it sound as if the Basque Country is in France, when the majority of it is in Spain, and the majority of Basques are Spaniards.

Certainly wasn't my intention, but now that I reread it... yeah, you're right, that is how it comes across. Hmmm... maybe an edit is in order.

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