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Straight Out of Bilbao

Aatxe is giving sleepy Duboce Triangle a vibrant, frenetic infusion of Basque-inspired food.

SLIDESHOW 

A spread at Aatxe

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Aatxe’s bar

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Olive oil–poached radishes.

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The Basque Country is a sea-meets-mountains region straddling Spain and France that is home to a deep-rooted nationalist movement. That’s not to say that its boundaries are always well defined. On the culinary front, the borders can grow blurry: The Basque family-style restaurants sprinkled throughout California’s Central Valley bear almost no resemblance to anything you’ll find in San Sebastián. And the increasing number of Bay Area spots serving Basque-style small plates struggle to concisely define what separates them from Spanish tapas, aside from the fact that the spellings are more fun.

The latest contribution to the genre comes in the form of Aatxe (pronounced ah-CHAY, much like a sneeze), whose owners bill their restaurant as “Basque-inspired.” It sits in Duboce Triangle, which is fitting. The district does some straddling of its own, splayed between the Castro and the Haight, and it has long appeared to have its own sovereign ambitions: a fervent commitment to remaining dull. That may change, however, what with the goings-on at the best-known landmark in the neighborhood: the upstairs-downstairs address on upper Market that until recently housed two concert venues, the Swedish American Hall and Cafe du Nord. The latter closed last year but is under renovation for a new restaurant from the Ne Timeas group—the outfit behind Flour + Water and Central Kitchen. When it reopens this summer, it will once more stage live music, albeit only for patrons of the restaurant and the adjoining bar. And as if that weren’t enough, those same Ne Timeas folks have overhauled the upstairs and filled it with Aatxe.

The restaurant is a small space, with globe lights, hard lines, and echoing acoustics, its floor plan broken loosely into three: a bar, a dining room, and seating along a white marble chef’s counter that overlooks a sunken kitchen, separated from the action by a glass partition. Behind it, Ryan Pollnow wears the toque. The former chef de cuisine at Central Kitchen, Pollnow also worked at two-Michelin-starred Mugaritz in Spain, an experience that primed him for his current project: taking Basque cuisine for a Bay Area spin.

The ride, for the most part, is smooth and entertaining. It breezes through terrain with some familiar-looking signage, starting with pintxos, those bite-size snacks that blanket bar tops all around the Basque Country, before moving on to postings for more substantial dishes: seafood conservas, meaty cazuelas such as satisfying pork cheek and chickpea stew, and a salt-crusted beef rib eye for two.

Along the way, Pollnow adopts varied tacks. At times, he toes the line of straight tradition. His gildas are plucked right from the pintxos canon, iconic toothpick-skewers of olives, peppers, and anchovies. His patatas bravas—fried potato wedges bathed in a spicy tomato sauce, with a side of aioli—are the kind of thing you’ve shared a thousand times with tipsy friends. More often, though, Pollnow toys with the standard line instead, as when he tosses pickled beets and kumquats with black olives and sets them on a creamy cloud of sheep’s milk idiazabal cheese custard; or when he Californianizes his croquetas, studding their starchy centers with morels and ramps.

Like the Basque region itself, Basque cooking often marries surf and turf. Pollnow celebrates that happy union. His octopus salad is an octopus’s garden, covered in the lavish greenery of avocado, kohlrabi, and salsa verde. His olive oil–poached radishes are undersold as such. Pollnow mingles them with anchovies, mint, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and tender bites of lamb belly. It’s a salt-of-the-earth dish, brightened with the brininess of the sea.

“Tapas” is a term that’s been thrown around so freely as to lose its meaning. Here’s a working definition: booze-friendly grub. Though Pollnow’s share plates are too sharp and inventive to dismiss as bar food, there’s no denying their larger purpose, which isn’t to dazzle you with the technique behind them. Order, for instance, the gambas al ajillo, a sauté of shrimp, garlic, and chili, or the lovely, lively clams escabeche verde— a symphony of shellfish, lemon, and parsley, delivered in a Mason jar—and your server will suggest a side of herb-flecked green olive flatbread. The bread is great for soaking up the juices, but it’s also a fine sponge for the albariño or garnacha blanca that you’re apt to ask for, too.

While the return of live music to this historic building is imminent, Aatxe has been built to get the party started. Its bar showcases an elaborate gin collection as well as sherry cocktails by the Bon Vivants, the bar mavens–cum–hospitality consultants behind Trick Dog. Then there is the soundtrack: mostly hip-hop tunes blared at eardrum-busting volume. “Could you turn it down even just a little bit?” I asked my server on a recent visit. “What?” she said. Exactly.

Maybe the thump-thump music is to blame, but the kitchen works at a frenetic rhythm, pumping out the dishes at a disconcerting pace—far faster, at least, than food this good deserves. On my final visit, I showed up just past sundown, and the night was still an infant by the time dessert arrived in the form of arroz con leche, a just-right sweet rice pudding, dusted with cinnamon and chocolate nibs. Before I knew it, I was back outside, where, in stark contrast to the liveliness of Aatxe’s confines, the sidewalks were already sleeping. For all its youthful energy, the city nods off early, a reminder that regardless of how one defines Basque food, no one will ever confuse San Francisco with Spain. 

Aatxe
Two and a half stars
2174 Market St. (Near Sanchez St.), 415-471-2977
 

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two at Aatxe.
Pintxos gildas (2) $2.50 each
Morel and ramp croquetas (2)  $3.50 each
Clams escabeche verde $12
Octopus salad $12
Green olive flatbread $6
Spanish fried rice with chorizo, sofrito, and salt cod tortilla $14
Morcilla chickpeas $25
Arroz con leche $9
Total $90

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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