Piperade: Basque Country in California
By Monique Burns
You don’t hear much about Basque restaurants in the U.S. Determined Internet searches turn up no more than 50 or 60 of note in our entire country. You’ll find some in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as Iowa and other parts of the Midwest, but many are out West in California, Nevada and Idaho. Along with19th-century gold and silver rushes that tempted some adventurous Basques, sheep-herding farms also drew Basques from their Pyrenees-mountain homeland, straddling the border between France and Spain.
In San Francisco, there are two excellent Basque restaurants, both opened by Chef Gerald Hirigoyen, who grew up in the Basque Country’s tony seaside resort of Biarritz overlooking the Bay of Biscay in France’s southwest corner. His first Basque restaurant, Fringale, opened in 1991, was later sold to one of his employees and remains a well-regarded bistro. Hirigoyen’s second Basque restaurant, the more elegant Piperade, has been going strong since its 2002 opening. So, too, has Hirigoyen, the subject of TV shows, and the author of three books, most recently Pintxos (Ten Speed Press, 2009), recipes for Basque-style tapas, or small plates.
Hirigoyen is, by any measure, a celebrity chef, but don’t be surprised if he greets you at the door of Piperade, or if you see him rushing in and out of the kitchen to check on orders. Like any European chef worth his salt, Chef Hirigoyen maintains a strong presence in his restaurant, which, along with excellently prepared cuisine, might help explain Piperade’s long-standing popularity.
Just west of The Embarcadero, behind the facade of a modern brick building, Piperade’s main dining room is a comfortable blend of the traditional and modern. Low wood beamed ceilings, farmhouse-style wood floors, and exposed-brick walls, decorated with pairs of paddles used for the game of pelota, evoke a traditional Basque bistro. Bold contemporary paintings, stylish leather seating and spotlights bring the look into the 21st century.
Though Basque cooking is a distinct cuisine, it might remind you of familiar dishes from Provence in the South of France. In Basque Country, chefs use a variety of seafood from the Atlantic as well as freshwater fish, pork, beef, chicken and, especially, lamb from inland regions. Beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, garlic and mildly hot peppers figure into stews and sauces. Some Basque dishes are distinctly French or Spanish in origin, but, as in most border regions, there’s a fair amount of crossover. Certainly, that’s true of Piperade, whose menu includes Basque dishes from both sides of that border, as well as fresh local ingredients from California and the West.
If you’d like to start with a cocktail, your waiter can bring you just about anything from the full bar that extends along one side of the main dining room. The menu only lists five cocktails, among them Piçon Punch, a Basque-American cocktail that dates from the 19th century, and is made with the restaurant’s own orange peel-infused Piçon mix, Torres 5-year-old brandy from Spain, grenadine and soda. Other cocktails recall Basque Country or other parts of Southwest France like the Basquerak, with Iowa-made Templeton rye, Castillian bitters, and Patxaran, a sloe-flavored Basque liqueur, or the Gascon, with Armagnac, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and fresh lemon. The complete wine list includes French, Spanish and Basque wines as well as selections from California.
You’ll find about a dozen appetizers on the menu. There’s light fare like thinly sliced Spanish Serrano ham with tomato compote and extra virgin olive oil, and Frisée Salad, with warm Serrano vinaigrette, pine nuts, and Spanish piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese. More substantial appetizers include twice-cooked oxtail, a minced meat patty with a pickled pepper salpiçon that lingers happily on the palate. The restaurant’s signature appetizer is, of course, piperade, a vegetable dish of cooked tomatoes, onions, green peppers and mildly spicy red espelette peppers.
Among entrees, there are typical Basque dishes as well as what might be termed Basque-fusion dishes, French entrees with a decidedly Basque accent. I ordered the sublime Basque stew, Bizkaiko, with seafood and shellfish in a haunting orange-and-red pepper sauce that I just could not get enough of. Smiling between spoonfuls, I actually frowned as I put the last delicious drop to my lips.
Another Basque specialty is Bakalao, made with sautéed Atlantic cod and served with asparagus, and aioli flavored with pimentón, or paprika. I almost wish I’d tried it. Though I’ve never been a big fan of bacalao, the salt-cod stew that’s served everywhere from South America to Scandinavia, I think I would have liked Piperade’s version, given Hirigoyen’s sure hand. Seafood lovers also might try the Bluenose Sea Bass from New Zealand with spinach and fried garlic vinaigrette.
Carnivores will find quite a few Basque-inflected meat dishes on the menu like roast rack of lamb with merguez lamb sausage, fennel, roasted bread, and pecan, cumin and date relish, and braised pork cheeks in Tempranillo grape-and-cranberry sauce with sweet cipollini onions, and salsify, a parsnip-like root vegetable. More conservative diners might enjoy New York Steak, with Irouléguy wine and shallot butter, served with spring vegetables, or roast Cornish hen served with arugula, a corn cake and raisin-pistachio sauce.
After the simmering fire of the mildly hot peppers in many Piperade dishes, dessert is welcome. But, even if you’ve chosen a less fiery dish, dessert should not be missed. Chef Hirigoyen, who began his culinary career as a young patisserie apprentice in Paris, knows his sweets. Along with traditional Gâteau Basque, a dense almond cake, you’ll find traditional French pastries and desserts, including fritter-like orange-blossom beignets, French apple tart with caramel sauce, and that perennial favorite on both sides of the Basque divide, caramel custard.
IF YOU GO
Piperade. 1015 Battery St., San Francisco, CA 94111; 415-391-2555; www.piperade.com
Piperade is open for lunch and dinner, Monday-Friday, and for Saturday dinner. Lunch and dinner menus are similar. The restaurant is closed Sunday.