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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.

Check­list

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.

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