Summary: Exciting and delicious homey food could only be made better by more engaging service.
I had been looking forward to dining at Piperade since the restaurant opened. I was already a fan of chef-owner Gerald Hirigoyen. His other restaurant, Fringale, is one of my favorites, and I really enjoyed his cookbook "The Basque Kitchen." In addition, I love Basque food in all of its manifestations. Circumstances (read, Michaela) had kept us away from Piperade until last Tuesday night (March 2004), when Mike managed to get both babysitting and reservations for the same night (Piperade is still seen as a "hip" place, which means that prime-time reservations even for weekdays are not easy to come by). Piperade did not disappoint.
As usual, Mike completely miscalculated how long it would take us to get to San Francisco so we arrived about half an hour early (our reservation was for 7:30pm). The restaurant and the bar were packed, but I was able to get one lone seat and have some wine while waiting. The wine (I forget the name) was very good and we really liked the convivial atmosphere of the restaurant. The room is not very large and sports a lot of brick and wood, with a little bit more weathering it would resemble many a restaurant in the old country. An open bar occupies one side of the room, and it might be a good place for a quick meal - if you could get a seat. There is a small dining area outside, next to the street, where it might have been nice to eat that night as the weather was beautiful.
We only had to wait about fifteen minutes before we were seated at a table for two. Although we were pretty close to the table next to us and the place was pretty loud, the soft lights (and maybe the wine) made it seem quite romantic. I was happy we'd gone without Michaela and this definitely didn't seem like a restaurant where she might have felt at home.
Service throughout the night was very good - bread and water were replenished as needed and our waiter was helpful in determining how much to order and in describing the wine. He did seem to scoff a little when I told him we didn't care in what order the dishes came out, though.
The food, however, was the star of the evening. The menu is divided in two parts, tipia, or small plates, which could be seen as tapas or appetizers, and handia, or big plates, which could be seen as tapas or main dishes. I am not sure that it's the size of the portion, but rather the type of food, which distinguishes one from the other.
We ordered three tipias, the "warm sheep's milk cheese and ham terrine"($9.50), the "whole prawns with garlic, parsley and lemon" ($9.50), and the "artisan foie gras sauteed with Monterey squid, grapes and verjus" ($17) and one handia, the "marinated lamb chops with thyme and aged sherry vinegar" ($17). I wish there had been more of us so we could have ordered more dishes, in particular the very Basque seafood offerings. Everything we ordered was excellent.
The pan-fried terrine was very salty (not a dish for those with high blood pressure) but delicious, both by itself and accompanied by bread. I loved the cheese-formed-crust and I think I may try to make it in the future (Mike cheered this idea). Mike really liked the prawns as well, though as usual he complained that he had to peel their tails off. The strong garlic sauce is guaranteed to thrill any garlic lover, and it was very good soaked into the bread (good manners be damned!). In all, this dish tasted just like the best "gambas al ajillo" that Mike had in the Basque country.
We weren't surprised at the succulence and sheer deliciousness of the foie gras dish. I had cooked this same recipe (minus the squid) for Thanksgiving a year and a half ago, so I knew what to expect. I was thrilled, however, by the size of the portion; it was so generous that I have to wonder how they make any money from it. In any case, it's a bargain at $17. Here again, we soaked up all the sauce with the bread - and I wanted more!
I had read that the lamb chops weren't very special, so I had been a little hesitant to order them. I was pleasantly surprised. What this dish lacked in originality, it made up in flavor. The three lamb chops were perfectly cooked medium-rare (as we had ordered them), letting the subtle flavor of the lamb take over.
We were pretty full by this time (due in part to all the bread we consumed, no doubt) but I wanted to try the cheese so we ordered the "selection of Basque cheese with cherry preserves and membrillo" ($11.50). It consisted of three slices of cheese, a semi-soft cheese, a hard cheese and a blue cheese. We both really liked the semi-soft cheese, it reminded us of a good brie (though it wasn't as soft), but weren't as thrilled by the other two. The cherry preserves, however, were delicious, both with the cheese and on bread. We don't usually like anything cherry, but this was an exception.
Mike decided to skip dessert, but I can always make room for something sweet. I decided against the controversial orange beignettes, a chocolate cake and the gateau basque (as I'd had it at Fringale and hadn't really liked it), and opted instead for the turron mousse cake. This was not a good option. The cake consisted of very fluffy mousse on a very thin slice of cake. At first, I liked the surprising taste of the turron in the very light mousse - it was seductive as it played against expectations (turron is a very hard candy). But after a couple of bites the surprise was over and there was nothing left to entertain my palate. Honestly, I expected more from the pastry chef.
In all, we had a very good experience and I'm looking forward to our next visit to Piperade. Anyone care to babysit?
Update 6/05: We once again visited Piperade for dinner on a Wednesday night on June 2005. Getting a reservation this time proved easy - we just called the night before and got a 7:30 table. Neither the place nor the menu had changed much, though prices on most dishes had gone up $2-3. Once again, we ordered the foie gras and squid with grapes and verjus. The presentation had changed, but it was still a generous portion of very yummy foie gras. I highly recommend it. The ham and cheese terrine was also just as good as we remembered though the portion seemed a tad smaller. Still, it's so rich and salty that you can only eat a little bit. This time we ordered the piperade, which consists of sliced red peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic stewed together. Piperade is served with a large, thin slice of (fried?) ham and a poached egg. It's a very homey dish, something you can imagine eating at home in front of a fire. It's a dish that is best eaten on top of crusty bread, and fortunately there was plenty of it. I enjoyed it quite a lot, as much for its flavor (and I'm a big fan of red peppers) as for the nostalgia (not sure for what) that it evoked. Mike, on the other hand, wasn't thrilled by it. We both agreed that the slice of ham was amazingly good - we need to find where Piperade gets its charcuterie. For dessert I had the cornmeal cake with a strawberry compote. A few years ago I would have not thought that I'd like cornmeal cake. It's just one step removed from cornbread which is good, but not my idea of dessert. But I've since had it at a couple of fancy restaurants and liked it - I loved it at Piperade. The cake was coarse and, again, homey and went wonderfully with the very sweet strawberry compote and cream. Once again, it took me to the Pyrenees, and images of mystical hearths. I will definitely have to make it. Mike had a glass of the house Cab and we both really enjoyed it. The only somewhat sour note of the evening was the service, which seemed somewhat hurried and cold, certainly not very welcoming. Indeed, there was no greeting when we arrived, no farewell when we left, and the waiter forgot my fries. Oh well, the food still makes it worth it.
1015 Battery Street
San Francisco, California
Lunch hours: Monday to Friday, 11:30am - 3:00pm
Dinner hours: Monday to Saturday, 5:30pm - 10:30pm