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A Caveat

Bocadillos, a tiny tapas bar at the edge of the financial district in San Francisco, is the latest venture by Basque chef Gerald Yrigoyen. I've been in love with Yrigoyen's cooking since my first visit to Fringale years ago, and Bocadillos has received such great reviews from the press and general public that I knew we had to try it. This despite the fact that the restaurant doesn't take reservations and we knew we'd probably have a bit of a wait when we got there. The wait was worth it, but we probably wouldn't go back there again.

Reviewing Bocadillos, like CÚsar before it, is a little bit difficult, as these establishments are supposed to be tapas bars - places where small plates of food compliment and provide sustenance to an evening of drinking and socializing. Judging them entirely for their culinary prowess may be both unfair to them and missing the point of what these places are meant to be. And yet, what leads me to try places like them is the promise of great food, so I can't but judge them on how they fulfill that promise. Bocadillos has the added onus of being Piperade's sibling restaurant, which makes comparison between the two inevitable - especially as they are similarly priced (Piperade is more expensive, but it offers bread and larger portions, so you end up ordering less).

We went to Bocadillos on a Tuesday night in November 2004. We got there a little before 7 PM and the small restaurant was already packed. We were told there would be a fifteen to twenty minutes wait and we were seated within that time period. The small bar, where you can also order food, was also full.

The restaurant is really tiny, with a long communal table in the middle, and several tall tables seating two or four against one wall. A tall counter at the back provides additional room for dining - that's where we finally sat. Seating at the communal table is on wire chairs, and at the tall tables and counter on backless wooden stools, which felt uncomfortable after sitting on them for a while. As you might expect, it's loud (and warm!) inside.

The menu features traditional and innovative tapas and it's pretty much the same as the one available online - except that the peppers section has been eliminated. That's too bad as the roasted red pepper salad with cabrales and toasted almonds sounded great to me. Most of the tapas come plain, with no accompaniments and no bread was brought to the table, so we ended up ordering five dishes in addition to two desserts.

Our first one was the "foie gras roll with serrano ham, mango and aged balsamic" ($12). This is Bocadillos' own take on sushi, with the serrano ham taking the place of the seaweed and the foie gras the place of the fish. They were both good and interesting, but the taste of the ham completely overwhelmed the lighter taste of the foie gras. Its texture was still wonderful but it made me long for its distinctive taste. The serrano ham was so good that it made me wish I'd ordered it all by itself.

We followed this with a bocadillo (sandwich) of "chorizo with walnut spread and parsley" ($5). The small sandwich took us back to our trip to Spain over a decade ago, where as broke newlyweds we had survived on self-assembled chorizo sandwiches throughout our trip. The chorizo was indeed authentic Spanish chorizo and if you have never had it, you should order it for just one reason: it's great. The sandwich, though, was too heavy on the parsley (easily remedied) and needed more chorizo to balance the thick bread. Still, it was very good - I liked the nutty taste and texture of the spread - and I'd certainly order it again.

Then came our first entree, three perfectly cooked lamb chops ($12) were wisely left alone and seasoned perfectly. They were very good, and while I've had better lamb chops elsewhere (including at Piperade), they were considerably more expensive. They were accompanied by a peach chutney that added nothing to the dish and by three hard and chewy mini-baguettes that were at least good for soaking up the meat juices.

This was followed by "baby back ribs with honey and sherry glaze" ($10). The ribs had a thick fruity sauce on them which we first found a little disconcerting but grew on us - by the time we were done with them, we really liked them. I felt that the large ribs needed more meat; on some of them there was barely any meat.

We were still hungry at this point so we decided to order another tapa: the "flat iron steak with chimichurri" ($12). The thin slices of beef were nicely cooked medium rare, and served drowning in the oil-heavy chimichurri sauce, that didn't taste well blended. Neither the meat nor the sauce seemed to have been salted, so that the meat was too bland even for Mike who doesn't like much salt in his food in general. Adding salt helped, but by the time we were able to fetch a waiter to bring us the saltshaker (none was provided at the counter or tables), the meat was already cold. I would not order this dish again.

For dessert, I decided to go for the "arm of a gypsy with hazelnut mousse" ($6), a rolled cake with hazelnut mousse filling. The cake itself was too dry for our taste; it was screaming for some liqueur or even coffee to liven it up and moisten it. The filling was too sweet and not flavorful enough - you could barely distinguish any hazelnut taste. We would not order it again.

The warm chocolate cake with sauteed bananas ($6) was more of a success. The cake was rich and served very warm, which immediately endeared us to it. I would have liked it to be sweeter and to taste more chocolatey, but Mike liked it well enough as it was. The banana slices weren't that special by themselves, but added an extra element to the cake when eating them together. We'd order it again.

Though the wine list looked attractive, pregnancy prevents me from drinking and Mike feels bad drinking in my presence so we had sodas instead ($3, no refills, tasted fine).

Service was OK, but too hurried for my taste. The hostess was nice and helped us find a place in the restaurant (next to the bar) where we could wait for our table - but neither the bartender nor anyone offered us a menu or a drink while we waited. We didn't want one, so it wasn't a big deal, but it would have been nice to be offered one. Our waiter was attentive but always seemed to be in a rush. When he asked if we wanted drinks before dinner, I told him we were ready to order, but apparently he heard we were NOT ready to order and disappeared before I could correct him. As I mentioned, it took us a while to find him when we needed some salt. Still, water and drinks were refilled and we don't have any major complaints.

In all, we had a positive experience but we both agree we wouldn't go back - its sister restaurant, Piperade, is so much better that I see no reason (beyond the thrill of going to some place new) to go to Bocadillos at all.

Bocadillos
710 Montgomery St.
San Francisco, Ca
415-982-2622
http://www.bocasf.com/
M-F 7 am - 11 PM
Sa 5- 11 PM
Sa-Su 10 am - 2:30 pm, 5-9:30 pm