After going on a total Spanish tapas tear in New York, you can trust I was fired up about the arrival of ~LAÏOLA~ on our local dining scene, the latest project from Joe Hargrave and Andrew McCormack of Frisson. Even more exciting (and I am not alone in this) was the prospect of having chef Mark Denham back in an SF kitchen doing his Mediterranean voodoo, putting a California seasonal spin on Spanish/Catalan dishes made with painstakingly sourced and crafted ingredients, many of them local.

Denham is a man obsessed. Have you read his "menu notes" on the restaurant's website? You should check it out. (Part of his "manifesto" is also printed on the back of the menu.)

His menu made me hungry. Denham's selection of house-cured meats offer different flavors than all the Italian meats we're getting used to around town, spiked with pimentón and cayenne and paprika. I was partial to the verraco ($8/$24 for all four), a wild boar chorizo made with boar leg meat and Niman Ranch pork back fat, plus red wine and spices. The cochino y jamón confitado, a rustic terrine, was also a satisfying combo of porky, meaty, fatty, and salty--Denham uses the scraps, confits them, and voila! (He's a "nose-to-tail" kind of chef.)

Hey, don't fill up on the Acme epi bread and olive oil--you have a big menu ahead of you! So, in the brilliant category, I nominate the chickpea croquetas ($7), stacked like a Lincoln Log cabin. They have a smooth inside with a firm exterior, with just a touch of cornmeal, and totally sing with the accompanying black olive aïoli. The batons are interestingly fried in olive oil, lending a pleasing additional flavor.

Also brill: the grilled octopus ($12). Three plump, juicy, tender polyps were served, sporting a perfect char, and with the heads still on. (Denham's time at Kokkari, AKA octopus central, is apparent with this dish.) I really dug the accompanying three-bean medley of shelling beans, cranberry beans, and Romanos, mixed with capers and a nice tang of vinegar--the ideal summer salad.

All kinds of fresh seafood beckoned on the menu, from the tender "we just got these in" spot prawns a la plancha ($12) with hazelnuts and romesco, to the more delicate esquiexada ($13) (sounds like "es-kee-shada") of Pacific halibut, a sashimi/crudo-esque dish with slivers of the halibut topped with celery, radish, and sieved egg. The sole thing missing from the esquiexada for me was a crumbling of an interesting salt. I had the same thought with the slabs of heirloom tomato on grilled bread ($10).

What is continuing to haunt me (some people have real ghosts, others like me suffer from food phantoms) is the dish of Willapa Bay clams ($11). I say damn the clams! They were juicy and springy, and the bath of tomato, garlic, and muy muy spicy salchichon rocked my boat, and my house. The hints of deep saline flavor plus the good garlicky bread all conspired to making me really, really happy. I just wanted the cazuela that the clams were served in to be hot.

After the sabor-explosion of the clams, the slow-roasted piglet ($19) left my palate wanting more depth, but I did enjoy the crunchy pieces of meat candy on top. I also thought the chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon ($12), while juicy, were a little one-dimensional--the drizzle of balsamic vinegar wasn't enough acid for me. For the most part, the food here is like a hot date: it feels new, it has a good personality, it was brought up right, and makes me want to hang out again. Call me, 'kay?

Truth be told, I've been mostly bored with the limited Spanish scene in SF. I am so tired of sub-par paella and patatas bravas and too much garlic and tortilla Española. Sure, these solid mainstays almost have to be on most menus, and both a tortilla and patatas are on the Laïola menu, but the kitchen's little touches like a pimento and orange marmalada alongside the tortilla help aerate the all-too-familiar with some fresh air. It's like seeing a dish after a totally new haircut. ("Wow, your faux-hawk is quite a change from that tired mullet you've been sporting for ten years!")

So, dessert. Funnily enough, to me, the options didn't read "I gotta get that!," but I ended up being pleasantly wooed. The pan con chocolate (all desserts $7) was actually a scoop of chocolate that had a texture that felt part pudding and part mousse, with the density of ganache. It comes with a drizzle of Arbequina olive oil (call me weird, but I would have liked more) and a sprinkle of salt, and you spread it on thin slices of toasted bread. I was way into the bright strawberry sangria, layered in a glass with a scoop of toasted almond sherbet--it was exactly how I like to finish a meal, especially like the one I had here. Even the crema catalana, a dish approximating the now-ubiquitous crème brûlée (which has become like Kryptonite to me) was a total refresh, with holiday-like spices and citrus and pink peppercorn.

The hard liquor license will hopefully be kicking in by mid-September, when bar manager Camber Lay will be able to do her mixology magic. But in the meantime, the lengthy list of Spanish wines, lovingly curated by co-owner Joe Hargrave, will make you hardly miss the booze. And bless the affordability of a lot of Spanish wines--you can drink a bottle of something really good off the 100-bottle list for around $30. Informative descriptions of the extensive number of wines by the glass are helpful, and there's also a lusty house blend, Borracho y Loco, that is served on tap. (I wrote a blurb about SF restaurants pouring house wines on tap for the August issue of San Francisco magazine if you still have a copy lying around.)

Servers are friendly and smart and zippy, keeping up with the brigade of small plates flowing out of the open kitchen. (Fun fashion-meets-function detail: servers sport a construction belt!) The prime seats are at the gleaming copper bar, with a view of the open kitchen and the bar, but the accompanying high tables are used mostly for groups. I'd prefer to come here with a pal and just sit at the bar and watch the kitchen do their thing, but there were plenty of groups waiting their turn for the larger tables. The handsome room also has a nice glow from the pressed copper ceiling above. The space has buzz, so don't come here expecting a dark, moody Spanish cave where you can canoodle quietly with your "amor," with Pedro the guitarist strumming the corner.

No reservations are accepted, but you can hang out with a glass of vino and not be totally in the way. If it's really busy and too crammed for you, you can wait it out until your table is up at the nearby Nectar Wine Lounge, the California Wine Merchant, or even next door at Circa if you are craving a cocktail. Speaking of craving, I want another date with the hot clams. (Good thing I'm not a guy, otherwise that last statement would be totally wrong.)

*UPDATE: March 30, 2009*

Chef Mark Denham has left, and sous chef Ron Pei has taken his place.

2031 Chestnut St.
Cross: Fillmore St.
San Francisco, CA 94123


Daily 5:30pm-10:30pm
Bar until 11pm

Small plates $7-$12
Larger plates $19-$22
Desserts $7

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This place is now closed.

2031 Chestnut St. San Francisco
(at Fillmore St.)