If you had any doubt that Spanish food remains one of the hottest crazes around even years after El Bulli’s Ferran Adria introduced the world to foams, just take a look at what’s happening in the Bay Area.
In January, Chef Paul Canales, formerly of Oliveto, opened Restaurant Duende & Bodega in Oakland. This spring, look for celebrity chef, Michael Chiarello of Bottega in Yountville, to open the splashy Coqueta on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
Thankfully, the South Bay has not been left behind in all of this. Donostia (the Basque name for San Sebastian) opened last month at 424 Santa Cruz Ave. in Los Gatos to serve up tapas alongside Spanish wines and beers.
The new restaurant is by the same duo behind Enoteca La Storia, just a couple doors away in the same retail-business center. Owners Joe Cannistraci and Michael Guerra, couldn’t resist when this long, narrow 1,000-square-foot space became available.
The two Italian guys traveled to San Sebastian to familiarize themselves with authentic tapas. That’s where they met Agustin Elbert, a native Argentinian who has spent the past dozen years cooking in Spain, including at a number of well-known tapas places. They lured him to Los Gatos to be their consulting chef.
Last week, I had a chance to visit Donostia as a guest of the restaurant. With a built-in clientele who often spill over from sister establishment, Enoteca La Storia, Donostia is already packing in regulars even if it’s only been open a couple of weeks.
The restaurant has a watery feel with its glimmering blue-white-gray tile wall behind the bar and a plaster relief of undulating waves that cover the length of the opposite wall. Take a seat at the bar or at one of the bar-height small tables against the wall.
Guerra suggested my friend and I start the evening the Basque way — with a splash of bracing, slightly effervescent 2011 Ameztoi Txakolina, Getaria, an acidic white wine served in a tumbler along with a simple pintxos of “Gilda” ($4.50), skewers of Guindilla peppers, anchovies and olives. It was grassy, briny, and buttery — all in one bite. With the wine tickling the palate with bubbles, it was a perfect way to prime the palate.
We went traditional with the three tortillas offered, choosing the classic with potato and onion ($4.50). It was flatter than ones I remembered eating in Spain years ago. The potatoes were creamy, melding with the custardy egg layers to create a soft omelet-tart that was futile to resist finishing.
A serving of codfish croquettes ($4) brought three football-shaped, golden, crisp fritters with a filling of fluffy potato fortified with bacalao, the Spanish dried salt cod.
Who can resist Iberico ham when it’s on a menu? Here, you can have it as part of a sampler plate of acorn-fed Iberican meats ($28). It includes jamon, smoky cured loin, a very porky-tasting Spanish salami and chorizo — all with a subtle sweetness and extra richness from the nuts that make up the pigs’ diet.
Brochetas are cooked on a flat-top known as a plancha to crisp up every little edge. The mushroom skewer ($6) reminds you of just how delicious something so simple as this can be. It’s just mushrooms brushed with olive oil, garlic and parsley, but they take on a deep, earthy, roasty flavor that stays with you long after the last bite.
The monkfish skewers ($14.50) feature meaty pieces of the lobster-like fish interspersed with shrimp wrapped in more of that lovely jamon that flavors all of the plump seafood.
Mussels are sauteed in white wine, olive oil, garlic and smoked paprika ($12) and served alongside crostini. The sauce is smoky and peppery from the paprika, but I longed for just a touch of acid — maybe even a squirt of lemon — to round out the slight heaviness of the sauce from the olive oil.
The chef, who has been experimenting with the quality of the octopus that can be sourced in these parts, sent out a little plateful of tentacle rounds bathed in paprika and olive oil. Here’s hoping they end up on the menu, because they are wonderfully tender.
Slow-cooked beef cheeks ($13) are swoon-tender, as well. Dark as midnight, the two chunks of meat are even beefier tasting than short ribs. Drag a chunk through the romesco sauce and chickpea puree on the plate and enjoy with abandon.
Desserts are limited. There are only two, a brownie and an airy bread pudding ($6) soaked in vanilla cream and cinnamon, then caramelized on one side in a hot saute pan. It’s served with a scoop of Tahitian vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of blueberry sauce. It’s far lighter tasting than you might imagine. The top takes on that lovely burnt-toffee-like flavor, too.
For those of you who are patatas bravas fans, that tapas staple of fried potato chunks served with spicy, vinegary tomato sauce is not on the menu here. At least not yet. The owners didn’t include it on the debut menu because it’s not traditionally Basque. But they’ve gotten so many inquiries about it that it’s a good bet it will appear on a future menu.
So, get your tapas taste buds primed.