Cold poached foie gras with black pepper, sea salt and quince compote ($US18, $25)
Steamed Pacific snapper with spinach and fried garlic vinaigrette ($US20)
Cornmeal cake with strawberry compote and creme fraiche ($US8)
It’s the perfect accompaniment to our entrees or tipiak (small plates): a sensational house-cured bacalao ($US12), salt cod topped with small, silken oysters and a drizzle of lemon creme fraiche, and a grande white bean salad served with boquerones (Spanish anchovies), fresh herbs and crumbled, hard-boiled eggs ($US11).
Our tipiak triumvirate is made replete with a wonderful, salty-licious terrine ($US12) of ham and sheep’s-milk cheese finished with a crispy, caramelised crust and dressed with aged sherry. A perfect tapas dish designed to tickle the appetite and the thirst, never a bad thing when one is en vacance .
As the cava evaporates at an alarming rate, folk begin trickling into our warehouse bolthole, drawing up to linen-dressed tables lined with festive red, white and blue runners. You get the feeling this a favourite luncheon hideaway for city folk, set on a broad, leafy street (there’s even parking), with a relaxed, urbane atmosphere.
Favourite hideaway: Set in a converted warehouse, San Francisco’s Piperade is off the tourist track
The mains, or handiak (big plates), are a slightly smaller, but just as tempting, selection of Basqueinfluenced dishes. The restaurant’s namesake seems compulsory for first-timers: piperade ($US17), a traditional Basque concoction of sauteed peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic topped with serrano ham and a poached egg. It’s simple but elegant, the Coco Chanel of stews. Just as light on the hips is another signature Hirigoyen dish, a braised seafood stew ($US20) of salmon, prawns, mussels, cockles and squid.
To wash down our mains we plunder the Spaniards again: a Vionta Albarino 2007 ($US10 a glass), a rather fashionable variety Stateside, and a Volver Tempranillo La Mancha (also $US10).
By mid-afternoon the small restaurant has filled with a cheerful local crowd giving it the cosy ambience of a corner cafe. There are zero tourists; one imagines they’re loitering on the waterfront paying premium for Dungeness crab while missing this quintessential San Francisco dining experience.
Make a day of it by beginning at the nearby Embarcadero Ferry Plaza, exploring the wonderful food shops in this elegantly restored city landmark (artisan chocolates, cheeses and bread are specialities) before jumping a heritage trolley (or tram), reminiscent of Moscow, Milan, even Melbourne, along the waterfront. Then enjoy a stroll to Piperade if for no other reason than to order dessert. Hirigoyen’s orange blossom beignets ($US8) are recommended in almost every food guide to the city, with good reason. They are divine.
Having lived in San Francisco for more than 25 years (and now operating two restaurants, including a casual tapas eatery in North Beach), Hirigoyen is firmly entrenched as one of city’s leading food identities, his simple dishes a celebration of Basque tradition and Californian innovation.
He has said he doesn’t want to be labelled a Spanish chef but enjoys integrating different flavours while drawing on his culinary roots.
And there’s something very San Franciscan about his food: fresh ingredients prepared simply in relaxed surrounds where, with a little imagination, one can hear the jingle of a sheep’s bell on a Nevada hillside. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
Piperade: 1015 Battery St, San Francisco. +1 415 391 2555; www.piperade.com. Open: Lunch, Monday-Friday; dinner, MondaySaturday. Reservations recommended. Cost: Small plates, $US7-$US18. Big plates, $US12-$US24. Desserts, $US8. Drink: Basque. The 200-strong wine list includes a quality selection of Basque wines together with eminently quaffable drops from Spain, California and France. Reason to return: Well-priced tapas-style dishes served in relaxed, convivial surrounds; a welcome reprieve from the city’s crowded tourist precincts.