May 01, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
By Paul Reidinger
TODAY'S SPAIN STRIKES the visitor as being very much a part of western Europe in its stylish layeredness a 12th-century Gothic cathedral in one block, a Prada boutique in the next but the country's recent past, though as scarred as those of its European Union brethren, is scarred in its own way. The difference registers in, of all things, restaurant names in San Francisco; like a seismograph recording a temblor half a world away, our restaurant culture memorializes, in small but sharp details, Spain's suffering in its civil war of 1936 to 1939, and its aftermath 36 years of arid right-wing dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
A few years ago, at the dawn of the culinary flowering around 16th Street and Valencia, a small paella shop opened under the name Paella La Movida. The restaurant was spiffy and ably run, the paella tasty, but the name "la movida" was the cultural response to the torpor of the Franco years spoke to a larger consciousness. Now, in the very heart of the Mission, we find Lorca, a mutedly elegant restaurant serving some of the best Spanish food in the city under a name that commemorates (in addition to a village in Murcia) the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, who died at the hands of Franco's Falangistas near the outset of la guerra civil.
Dead poets, especially youthful, sexually conflicted ones, exert a powerful pull on the imagination, but they don't provide much in the way of imagery, and Lorca's handsome interior stucco walls and arches, regal red curtains will not put you in mind of García Lorca's poetry or anyone else's, unless you recall that the poet was a friend of Salvador Dalí's, and some of the oil-on-canvas paintings hanging from the walls do have a slightly wild, Dalí-esque flavor to them. All that colorful abstraction had me thinking less of Dalí specifically than of Barcelona, capital of his native Catalonia and a city thick with the memory of such paragons of the modern as Picasso, Miró, and the architect Antonio Gaudi; but the restaurant's host explained that Lorca was conceived as a kind of pan-Spanish place, urbanely blending influences from throughout Iberia.
So: from Galicia in the soggy, overcast northwest, a hearty navy bean soup ($6) strewn with shreds of kale and bacon bit-like flecks of chorizo, Spain's distinctive garlic-paprika sausage. And from Mallorca in the east, the kitchen's signature dish, a striped-bass filet ($18) served napoleon-style atop a layer of braised spinach atop a layer of tomato-onion compote in a pool of smoked-paprika oil, with a scattering of raisins and pine nuts for some textured sweetness.
Given the centuries of Moorish rule in Spain, it's not surprising to find Middle Eastern influences conspicuous in the cooking. A garbanzo bean stew ($6), flavored with cumin and smoked paprika and greened up with spinach, struck us as Moroccan in tone. So did the pollo al'last ($14), a crisped breast of chicken from which protruded, like a spear thrown by some vegetarian warrior, a skewer threaded with grilled zucchini and yellow squash coins and a wrinkled cherry tomato. Underneath lay a bed of couscous, which would have made the whole thing seem perfectly Moroccan except that the couscous was the pearl-like Israeli variety. But then, the Middle East is nothing if not unpredictable, as Bush the Younger is discovering.
Occasionally, the kitchen reaches even farther afield. A Mediterranean salad ($8) brings together, in a tumble reminiscent of a springtime hill in Italy or perhaps Greece, radicchio, cucumbers, tomato, white asparagus, and goat cheese. And crabmeat filloas ($8), with pistachio and mint in mango vinaigrette, strongly resemble Thai or Vietnamese spring rolls.
Still, those little surprises are the exceptions. For the most part the food is unmistakably Spanish. Tender, whispery-hot piquillo peppers ($9) swell with a mild or perhaps I mean bland blend of saffron rice, spinach, chicken, and shrimp. Oxtail croquetas ($7), golden like sunset clouds, repose in a pool of rich beef reduction around an iconic heap of mushroom espuma a kind of fungal meringue. If there is a unifying note in the cooking, it is the twilit haze of smoked paprika; you don't find it in every dish, but it casts its shadow over quite a few of them, none more bewitchingly than the leeks ($7), baked with beets and sprinkled with goat cheese and olive oil infused with paprika. We mopped that plate clean with every bit of bread we could find.
The menu dips toward the ordinary only in its dessert offerings, perhaps to balance the luxury of the wine list, which isn't huge but does include, at $300 to $400 a bottle, a pair of Vega Sicilia Unico Reservas. It was one such wine that made up half of the perfect meal (the other half was jamón ibérico) some travel writer wrote about in one of those porny travel mags a few years ago. No mention there of dessert, and Lorca seems awkwardly to have followed that lead. Flan ($5) essentially a crème caramel consists of a smooth, firm custard garnished with plum slices and a runny caramel sauce that tasted faintly burned. Passion fruit cheesecake is rich and not too sweet but not particularly distinguished. And the cleanup hitter, torrija moderna ($5), is a complex assembly of double-baked cake cut into (dry) cubes, sour strawberry sauce, and cream ice cream that manages to be less than the sum of its impressive-sounding parts.
But in almost every other respect Lorca is worthy, splendid yes, even poetic.
Lorca. 3200 24th St. (at South Van Ness), S.F. (415) 550-7510. Dinner: Tues.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. (flexible closing hours); Sun., 5-10 p.m. MasterCard, Visa. Full bar. Noisy when there's music. Wheelchair accessible.