Finding real Spanish cuisine in SF has always proved challenging. While there are several very good “Spanish-inspired” restaurants they typically do not embrace many of the classic and beloved dishes one finds while traveling through the regions of the Iberian Peninsula. Allow me to introduce you to Bellota (refers to the acorn diet of the “pata negra” pigs) a stunning new project from The Absinthe Restaurant Group. From there we will explore MOMA’s In Situ where chef Cory Lee (Benu, Monsieur Benjamin) painstakingly recreates famous chef dishes from around the globe.
After three years of planning, research and design Bellota is now open in a historic building located at 888 Brannan Street in SOMA. The 170-seat, 5400 square foot space was designed by Sagan Piechota Architecture and features a level of design detail not seen in many restaurants. Upon entering guests are greeted by a massive glass wall displaying dozens of the highly prized Jamón Ibéricos as well as 2,500 bottles of Spanish wine. The bar and main dining room have tabletops and counters crafted from California bay laurel with Costa Brava blue leather chairs and booths. Moorish details abound throughout in the form of saffron-colored, tufted leather walls, stencils and brass table lamps.
Photo by Kelly Puleio
The best place to catch all the action is at the bar surrounding the open kitchen with its wood-burning oven, open-hearth grill and custom Hestan 12-burner range. Executive chef Ryan McIlwraith (he was opening chef at Coqueta and has worked with Gordon Ramsay and Jose Andrés) offers diners a multi-regional tour of the Iberian Peninsula. Start off with Spain’s cocktail of choice, the “gin tonic,” and the pan con tomate on Spanish-style ciabatta. There are a variety of cold and hot tapas to share. The perfectly creamy clam and sea urchin croquetas are a must order as well as the Xato, a delicate Basque dish with poached sablefish, trout roe, orange and romesco. While all of the paellas are fantastic—and precisely cooked to order—two dishes from the wood-fired hearth that stand out are the cordero or slow-roasted, Moorish-spiced lamb with flatbread, cherry salsa and ember-roasted, marinated eggplant and the classic Asturian dish known as La Fabada. The latter—now popular all over Spain and rarely seen in the States—is a stew of Astorga white beans with chorizo, morcilla, pork belly, grilled pulpo and charred cabbage. Bellota is open for dinner Monday through Saturday.
The recently renovated Museum of Modern Art has a new restaurant led by chef Corey Lee. It’s more of an art installation than an actual restaurant, serving guests iconic dishes from a cadre of famous chefs from around the world. The talent represented is staggering and includes the likes of Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se), Hisato Nakahigashi (Miyamasou, Japan), René Redzepi (Noma, Copenhagen), Juan Mari and Elena Arzak (Arzak, Spain), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana, Italy), Wylie Dufresne (wd~50, Alder in NYC) and locals like Alice Waters (Chez Panisse) and David Kinch (Manresa, The Bywater).
Photo by James Stolich
Given the complexity and disparity of the dishes this could be a challenging restaurant for diners were it not inside an art museum. It is a rare intellectual opportunity to try so many creative international dishes without stepping onto a plane. The kitchen is still ramping up so some countries such as Spain are not yet fully realized but will appear on the menu in the months to come. Perhaps the most beautiful and emblematic dish of the moment is The Forest. Created by Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco for his restaurant Mirazur in Menton, France the dish is homage to mushrooms and all things with an earthy texture. A bounty of wild mushrooms is served over a quinoa risotto with parsley “moss” and soft-boiled potatoes. In Situ is open daily from 11am until 4pm.
James is a food writer and Bay Area chef who owns and runs a private dinner party and cooking class business specializing in regional Italian and Spanish cuisine. See CookWithJames.com