Palencia

Nice niche!
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Guardian photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

Palencia so nicely fills such an obvious niche in the city's restaurant universe that we are left only to wonder why it wasn't filled sooner. The niche is white-linen or upmarket Filipino cuisine, and it's an obvious one in the sense that the connection between the Philippines and the United States — the West Coast in particular — has been strong for more than a century. It's at least as obvious in the sense that Filipino cooking, like Singaporean, is an interesting mishmash to begin with, an earthy yet worldly blend of Asian, tropical, and European influences that takes well to a bit of California-style styling.

The restaurant (a project of the Palencia family) opened over the summer on a — comparatively — quiet and leafy stretch of 17th Street in the Castro. The nearby buildings are mostly residential rather than commercial, and on an autumnal evening of early darkness you could easily walk right past Palencia. There is, as of yet, no street signage beyond a panel of frosted glass bearing the restaurant's name, along with a sheaf of menus posted at the door. Restaurant rows do have their advantages, among them the slowing down of foot traffic as prospective patrons move from one threshold to the next, pondering menu cards and making sure not to miss any. But there is an exhilaration in finding a restaurant all on its own, as if it's a secret.

Palencia's interior design adds to the sense of elegant hush. A votive candle flickers on each table, and the restaurant's butter-colored walls dance with suggestive shadows cast by these small brightnesses. Dark wood trim gives a hint of medieval flavor, while whimsical light fixtures that resemble woven baskets remind us that yes, we are still somewhere in the Castro early in the 21st century.

Chef Danelle Valenzuela's food matches up quite gracefully with the atmospheric setting. If your experience of Filipino cooking has heretofore been limited to eating fancified lumpia at Pres a Vi or the various tasty but plain adobos ladled over white rice at New Filipinas, you're likely to find that Palencia's kitchen has caught just the right tone. The dishes appear to be, by and large, authentic, but they are carefully prepared and plated, with dashes of artful juxtaposition.

If you love lumpia (the plump little pot sticker–burrito hybrids) but suffer from fried-food anxiety, you might open with Palencia's "fresh" version ($7.50 for two), which are almost like soft tacos: steamed crepes, about the size of hot dog buns, enveloping leaves of red leaf lettuce enveloping shrimp and shredded carrots and cabbage. The dipping sauce on the side looks like the spicy peanut kind but isn't; it's made of garlic and

soy and has a viscosity like that of homemade mayo.

While I cherish soy sauce as a reliable fund of umami, I felt it played too prominent a role in the chicken adobo ($8), boneless thigh meat and potatoes stewed to aching tenderness in what was meant to be a lively bath of garlic, red pepper, vinegar, and bay leaf. The broth was tasty enough; it just tasted a bit too much of soy saltiness. But this small off note was struck on an early visit; when we returned some weeks later we found no such imbalance in any of the dishes.

The least fried seeming of the fried items is probably ukoy ($7.95), an array of shaggy-looking shrimp-and-vegetable fritters served with a mignonettelike dipping sauce whose vinegary sharpness helps cut the fat. Once you reach the main courses you're largely past the perils of the deep fryer. Simmering is a large motif, even beyond the adobos; the tongue-twistingly named guinataang kalabasa at hipon ($11.25) is a Thai-like coconut-milk curry studded with prawns and chunks of kabocha squash, along with a shower of dark green Chinese long beans, like the remains of a splintered river raft.

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