San Sebastian is one of the most intoxicating places on the planet, a small, civilized Basque city exquisitely situated on the Atlantic coast of Spain near the French border. I just returned from a visit there, where I ate one of the best meals of my long, gluttonous life at Extebarri, a restaurant in the countryside that simply cooks everything over a wood fire.
So of course I was curious about Txoko, the new Basque-named restaurant in the former Enrico’s space on Broadway. Ian Begg and Ryan Maxey, the owners of the three-star take-out sandwich shop next door called Naked Lunch, jumped on a convenient vacancy to launch their version of a tapas bar.
Essentially, they just started serving a short menu of bites and small plates to accompany cocktails and wine in the funky, untouched-up Enrico’s dining room.
As in their sandwich place, Txoko’s dishes flow from Begg’s imagination. San Sebastian may have inspired an ingredient or two, but Begg cooks in his own refined and complex style.
He’s a refugee from fine dining, but at Txoko he keeps portions and prices small. In fact, many of his elaborate though miniature dishes are incredible values.
Most diners start out with a pintxo — a bite on bread — such as sweet-fleshed Prince Edward Island mussels ($3) on a thin baguette toast thickly spread with garlicky romesco (red pepper mayonnaise) and playfully topped with an avalanche of crunchy shoestring potatoes — a thrill in the mouth.
A sumptuous creation called “liver and onions” ($8) starts with pain de mie toast laid with meticulous circles of sauteed cippolini onion crowned with a tiny oval of perfectly seared foie gras, all drizzled with sweet Pedro Ximenez gastrique, a syrup made from fine Spanish sherry. I had to agree with my companion, who got exactly half the toast, that it was a rockin’ little mouthful.
Also in the pintxo category but without toast are Oregon bay shrimp in a bright red pepper puree, topped with chopped black olives, on a sea-green pool of basil oil ($3). The two mouthfuls at the bottom of a teacup tasted as stunning as they looked.
There are some masterpieces in the small-plates section as well. Crisp fried, creamy centered sweetbreads ($10) on a potato coulis with bits of cumin-scented chorizo is an exploration of velvet and crunch.
On another night, the exploration went even deeper with plush seared scallops ($14) on both a potato coulis and a sweet corn sauce, lightened with pea sprouts and snap peas — and a beignet-like fried okra on the side.
My favorite dish was a juicy grilled quail ($13) atop a ragout of mushrooms, padron peppers, smoky chorizo and escarole in a haunting, creamy sauce.
Frankly, some of Begg’s ideas don’t quite pan out. How hard it must be for the kitchen to execute such technically challenging dishes that involve so many different ingredients, and make them all click. But, no one can complain about the price even if there is a dud or two.
As for the savory sweets for dessert, you don’t need them.
Essentially, Txoko is an eccentric, whimsical, bat cave of a place with no frills except for some outrageously lush fancy cooking. The juxtaposition of high and low makes it fun.
Location: 504 Broadway (near Columbus Avenue), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 500-2744; www.txokosf.com
Hours: 5 p.m. to late night Tuesdays-Saturdays
Price range: Pintxos $3 to $8; small plates $9 to $14
Recommended dishes: Small plates of quail, sweetbreads, scallops, mussel pintxo, foie gras pintxo, bay shrimp with basil oil
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Patricia Unterman is the author of “The San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.