Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Zarsuela
Reviewed Zarzuela: Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Zarzuela is tucked in the residential area of Russian Hill, only blocks away from the historic, winding road of Lombard Street, overlooking the Bay and the City. Its rustic charm is inviting, and the decor screams of Spain — from the matador posters to the earthy tones of the stucco walls, you feel truly transported for an evening in this cozy space.
Although there are no reservations, the wait seems quick and pleasant as you watch the cable cars pass by, catching up with friends or trying to warm a date from the San Francisco breeze.
The host is charming and eager to please and has a smile that foretells of good things to come. Service is always with a smile and at a European pace: unrushed, but never wanting. The staff is knowledgeable, and in the 5 years I have been coming, I really haven’t noticed any turnover: this stability and consistency brings a sense of family. They are always quick to bring a carafe of perfectly blended sangria with hints of cinnamon. It’s subtle but potent; the evening starts right.
But the true draw is always the food, my favorites:
- The grilled calamari with aioli is simply the best I have ever tasted. The calamari is so simply prepared, but so perfect. It is tender but textured, the smokiness of the grill touched with the perfect balance of acid, and the salt and creaminess of the aioli is to die for!
- The baked goat cheese with tomato sauce, served over Spanish olive oil-crusted toast is, again, unassuming, but the freshness of the flavors pop — from the tanginess of the tomatoes to the creaminess and bite of the goat cheese, which just melts until you feel the crunch of the toast: amazing
- They are certainly known for their poached octopus, which is seasoned with paprika and served over potatoes. It is certainly traditional Spanish fare, but unlike any I have ever tasted. Apparently the server is quick to point out that this is Gary Danko’s favorite dish. A paradox of simply preparation and complexity of a subtle flavor, this dish has hints of smoke, hints of spice, and hints of oak with a texture that is tender but unfamiliar with the star of dish being clearly the octopus
- And in the paella — the best in the city in my view — there are no fancy sauces, just the essence of the fresh seafood infused with the smokiness of the dish and the saffron. The rice is perfectly textured with some chewiness, and then there’s the bite of the “bottom” rice that is marinated with the flavors of the paella dish. Truly memorable and well portioned
With so many choices in the city, I rarely find myself heading back to a restaurant more than once, but Zarzuela is the exception.
To me Zarzuela is the epitome of what San Francisco dining is all about: it’s not about finding the most popular restaurants with Michelin stars, or fine dining and celebrity chefs, for me it’s about finding where the best chefs go to eat, and where are the finds. Zarzuela, great, authentic, unpretentious, and clean food with unrushed service at a valuable price, leaves me with a smile every time I leave.
Location: Daly City
Favorite Restaurant: Pizzaiolo
Reviewed Zarzuela: Thursday, August 4, 2011
OK! Cue the Montserrat Caballé-Jose Carreras-Gypsy Kings music medley!
This picturesque Russian hill neighborhood is close to one of the world’s crookedest streets and has the cable car riding right past the restaurant. This area is crawling with tourists, so going to it will feel odd to people like me who tend to avoid tourist zones in favor of San Francisco’s localized neighborhood enclaves.
Los turisticos create another issue here: the place gets packed early so make a reservation! The biggest drawback to this location is the lack of parking. Be ready to drive up and down the city’s steepest hills for 20+ minutes, hunting for parking and then hiking back to the restaurant.
The restaurant has a warm European feeling. (I adore Spanish regional cuisine, having lived in Sevilla [Andalucia] and Barcelona [Catalan] with numerous trips to Madrid [Tapas].) Chef Lucas Gasco grew up in Madrid and really knows the nuances of Spanish regional cooking. His menu is a tour de España with a variety of hot and cold tapas, Spanish entrees, and PAELLA!
The ambiance is welcoming with magnificent art, exposed brick walls, and an exposed line kitchen. Being a single guy, I enjoy places where I can spontaneously dine by myself and still feel like I am part of a small, casual, and unpretentious local neighborhood gathering place; where I can relax and have the experience of being part of a family. The dining space has a large main room with a high ceiling that is divided in half with a small bar and a large sunny outdoor dining patio (replete with heaters) that abuts an intimately sized bocce ball court.
I arrived slightly before 9:00 pm on a Thursday with NO reservation and was promptly seated at the ONLY remaining open window table. My server was friendly and knowledgeable, having worked at Zarzuela for decades. The bread is nothing special, but to my delight it was served with infused oil in which you can taste olives and a hint of garlic. The quality and texture of bread is very important when eating tapas. You need it in order to soak up each plates’ unique sauce-like component.
As usual, I ended up working late and dining alone that night. I began with traditional Spanish gazpacho (cold tomato soup). Zarzuela’s is rich and creamy, not too cold, and is served with baked croutons on top. You can taste the garlic, a hint of blended onion, and refreshing tomato. The perfect palate-cleansing starter for any Spanish meal.
Onto my 3 tapas:
Padrón peppers: tasty and grilled perfectly with the tiniest burned edges and rich authentic taste. There was just a hint of heat at the stems, since the heat makes the peppers sweeten a bit. The peppers could have come with more oil (this is a seasonal dish and NOT always on the menu). Padrón is a Spanish city near the border of Portugal with unique moist winds. Originally these tiny delights came only from Spain, but I’ll bet the pepper man at the Ferry Building farmers’ market gets them locally and supplies most San Francisco-area restaurants.
Another tapas típico is gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp). This dish, as well as the baked goat cheese, arrives in tiny cast iron skillets. Sadly here the shrimps were frozen fresh and of medium quality and size. The presentation was perfect, with the shrimps swimming in garlic and oil. This is a dish where you reach for the bread to accompany each bite. Later when I asked if the shrimps were frozen, the waiter said yes and explained that bigger/better gambas were typically used in their paellas (made in traditional Spanish manner but cooked in steel skillets rather that traditional Spanish clayware).
My third hot tapas — YES, I asked for them to arrive together — came bubbly hot and floating in the iron skillet in a generous amount of cooked tomato puree. It’s a classic winner: a generous slab of super fresh, organic, Sonoma farm goat cheese. You could taste a tiny bit of onion? And also muscatel grape, delicately blended into the hearty sauce. As the cheese continues to melt, it mixes with the tomato puree. The dish comes with two baked thinly-sliced pieces of bread — the perfect crunchy contrast to the soft creamy cheese. (I could have used more than the 2 slices.)
Thinking ahead, I did save space for desert and could not resist ordering flan!
This flan was absolutely spectacular: sweet, creamy, with a perfect texture and floating in a generous amount of caramelized sauce, so you can soak each spoonful of flan in the sauce before tasting each bite.
I would definitely come back to this restaurant with a date or group of friends in order to try more dishes and sample the paella. My rating is a 8 on a 1 to 10 scale.
PS: While I was there the waiter suddenly burst into SONG in front of a large table. I had an immediate flashback to living in Sevilla upon hearing this same song. The entire restaurant would be singing together at the top of their lungs. I grew a little sad at not knowing the words well enough to help out the waiter with my contralto. VIVA ESPANA!
Occupation: Event Planner and Floral Designer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Pork Store Café
Reviewed Zarzuela: Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Okay, so I’ll admit it. We tried to go to Zarzuela on a Sunday. Zarzuela is closed on Sundays. Perhaps I should read the fine print before I get excited and rush off to a new restaurant. So, I had to wait a few days and then off to Zarzuela Justin and I went for date night!
On a bustling corner where the cable car roars by sits this modestly decorated institution of Spanish cuisine. Street parking was impossible, so we decided to resign to the conveniently located parking garage across the street from the restaurant. We passed couples waiting outside for a table and were greeted with inviting garlic aromas. The kitchen’s perfumes let us know we would be in for a palate pleasing meal.
We waited in the waiting room for about 20 minutes with a group of tourists before being shown to our cozy table along the wall of beautifully decorated plates. After a short wait our server, named Carlos, greeted us. Carlos was charming, helpful, and a server I’d like to see at every restaurant I visit. He helped us make our dining selections and explained the menu with patience and an irresistible smile.
We started with a variety of tapas plates that came to our table with perfect timing. When I think of tapas portions, I am expecting small servings — one or two bites and it is gone. The portions at Zarzuela are generous. The presentation was pleasing to the eye, and I am impressed with how the selection changes from night to night. The highlight was the crab cakes. With a light, crunchy shell and a tasty moist center made up of the freshest ingredients, these crab cakes left me wanting more. The sangria, or shall I say grape juice, was a perfect addition to the flavor filled plates.
Paella Valenciana was our main course. Carlos served and dished our plates of paella with a hint of flair and showmanship. He presented the signature dish with pride. We shared this iron skillet of Spanish rice, fresh seafood, and marinated chicken and enjoyed every bite. I was looking forward to traditional paella, after visiting Spain and getting spoiled with its fine cuisine, and Zarzuela’s paella did not disappoint!
Our dessert of warm bread pudding with hints of raisins, nuts, and chocolate closed the meal on a high note. The warm, sweet, goodness solidified to me that Zarzuela is a restaurant I will share with my friends and family. Our two-hour plus dining experience was coming to an end, and the once packed restaurant was finally slowing down. We then sat back and realized what a wonderful evening we had. Zarzuela feels warm. From Carlos our server, to the perfectly cooked paella rice and the comfort of the bread pudding, I had a warm feeling as we left Zarzuela. A perfect date night with Justin!