Friday, November 16, 2007

Dish on Dining: Laiola

Scrumptious Small Bites with the Neighborhood Crowd

2031 Chestnut St. (near Fillmore), San Francisco

Marina district

PH: 415.346.5641

Dinner daily from 5:30–10:30 p.m.

Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Web site

Laiola’s overall casual feel fits in nicely with the Marina crowd. A handsome young man, dressed in a long-sleeve shirt (untucked) and jeans, stood outside the restaurant as I approached on Sunday evening. I thought he was just another curious diner checking out the menu. Turns out he’s the restaurant manager.

And the rest of the team was just as casual, including my bartender dressed in a printed T-shirt and jeans.

The neighborhood vibe of this Spanish-influenced restaurant and wine bar was what partners Joe Hargrave and Andrew McCormach were shooting for. But Laiola is more than a cool place to hang out with a nice glass of wine. It’s also a great place to eat, with the clean and delicious plates coming out of the kitchen under chef Mark Denham.

NOTE: Since Laiola opened earlier this year, it wouldn’t take reservations. Its first-come-first-serve approach to dining was refreshing for a solo diner like myself, where I could find a seat along the long bar and watch the front row action of either the bartender or the line cooks near the kitchen. But just recently it instituted reservations (by phone after 1 p.m. or via OpenTable). This is probably good news for large parties not wanting to wait, but I feel like Laiola loses some of its small, neighborhood restaurant vibe with this step. We’ll see.

The small space of the restaurant has an open feel with its dark wood and big plate windows facing the street. While I was there, a few large parties snuggled in the side tables along the wall, but most people seemed willing to just pull up a stool at the long bar and check out what their neighbors were eating.

Chef Denham’s menu definitely has a Spanish feel, with nods to fresh seafood and pork. It has a list of charcuterie items (oh, excuse me, I guess it’s called charcuteria in Spanish) and an even longer list of appetizers or tapas. There are also a few large entrée plates, but it’s a limited list. The tapa plates go for about $9 to $14 while the few entrées went for about $19 to $23.

I started my evening with a glass of Spanish red wine called Mencia, which my bartender told me was similar in character to Pinot Noir. What I loved about the way Laiola serves its wine by the glass is that the bartender pours the wine from the bottle into an individual size decanter, which he leaves next to you. Then he pours the wine from the decanter into your glass. With the decanter, you can really get a glass and a half of wine, which is a good thing considering the wine cost $12 a glass.

For my meal, I decided to forgo the entrées (although a neighbor’s slow-roasted suckling piglet looked wonderful) and got myself a mix of tapas. I started with Pears ala Plancha ($10) and local squid ($10).

The pears were poached in wine and wrapped in jamón (the Spanish ham) and served with blue cheese and arugula. The pear slices were warm and tender, almost melting in your mouth with the salty jamón waking up your senses to really enjoy the flavors. They were complimented by the peppery-ness of the fresh arugula.

Next up was the local squid, simply grilled and served with a lemon aioli. This was so perfectly symbolic of Spanish cuisine: clean, fresh food from the sea with the slightest hint of good olive oil. The squid was perfectly tender. I ate it so fast that I didn’t realize that I ate the mini parsley on top, which I now realize may have just been there as garnish.

My third dish actually didn’t come up next. For some reason, the first two tapas came out in a timely fashion but I guess the crowd hit the kitchen as I dined because I waited and waited for my final dish, the Quaila la Parilla ($13) or roasted quail. It took so long that I felt the need to order another glass of Mencia (setting me back another $12).

When the quail finally arrived, it was tender and tasty. But really, I don’t think I’ve ever had bad quail; it’s one of my favorite birds to eat.

I ended the evening with an order of Crema Catalana, similar to crème brulee but with an orange-almond-cinnamon flavor. I don’t know if the pastry chefs had an off night, but it was such a spoiler end to the vibrant dishes that came before. The caramelized surface of the crema was badly burnt, so it offered up a bitter taste when I blended it with the custard.

Despite the end, Laiola really did live up to its reputation has one of the hottest and lively new restaurants in town. And while tapas can add up because the portions are small and you end up ordering probably more than you should (in my case one wine glass too many), you’ll be rewarded by the freshness of the ingredients and the expert execution of the kitchen.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (visit Spain by the bay)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star
= perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Laiola in San Francisco


SteamyKitchen said...

Well you see the trouble with no reservations is that when I come to SF and I say, SGC, let's go eat at Laiola's...we wouldn't be able to get a table! Well, unless you sit on one end of bar, I sit on other end and we have walkie talkies. No, wait. We'd have 2 cans and a string to talk.


Single Guy Ben said...

Steamy Kitchen, why is it I bet you can get a table anywhere you go? ;-)