Gather round ....
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Just when you thought that Valencia Street couldn't possibly support another restaurant, you blinked, or sneezed, or took a cell phone call from someone who'd dialed the wrong number, and kazaam! you looked up to see another restaurant. Let's say you're standing at the corner of 19th Street, so it's probably Paréa Wine Bar and Café, which was opened a little over a year ago by Nicole and Telly Topakas in the space held most recently by Oxygen Bar and Sushi.
One plus for Paréa is that it's Greek, or semi-Greek, or nominally Greek Greekish, at least on a seething restaurant row that's otherwise devoid of Hellenistic flavors. The wine list includes a large number of bottlings from Greece, and many of them are available by the glass and half-glass. (Three cheers for the half-glass, by the way or, as it's known at Paréa, the "taste" for encouraging experiment without fomenting undue drunkenness.) I have a certain fondness for Greek whites, which manage to be both stony and floral flowers cut from stone much like Greece itself. But there are plenty of wines from elsewhere around the Mediterranean, the New World, and for that matter the whole world.
The food reflects a similar Grecocentric globalism. At the core of the menu are the mezes plates, arrays of traditional Greek delicacies. But one wall of the restaurant consists of a huge chalkboard that lists the day's specials, many of which nod to Greece only slightly or not at all. Whatever the ethnic or cultural slant of the food, it's likely to be made with organic ingredients obtained locally, and to go well with wine.
Paréa is the Greek term for a gathering of intimates: friends in the truest sense. The group that assembles in Plato's Symposium would probably qualify. Plato's paréa might well feel at home at Paréa, clustering around the restaurant's low tables, sitting on backless stools, making elegantly bawdy remarks about the rest of the clientele (youngish, good-looking, often ambiguous as to team played for) and the service staff (same).
The space isn't that different from its Oxygen Bar edition the long bar still runs along one wall at the rear of the dining room except that the colors have changed from an ethereal combination of blue and white to a sunset-on-Mykonos blend of red and yellow. Also, the strange plastic oxygen tubes that protruded from the walls, as if the restaurant catered to people suffering from emphysema, have vanished. The uncluttered walls now invite leaning, as you sip your wine, nibble your mezes, and exchange deep thoughts with the other members of your paréa.
The mezes platters available from the regular menu are fine, though not remarkable. The vegetarian version ($12) includes besides triangles of toasted pita bread hummus, yogurt, black and green marinated olives, carrot and celery sticks, and coils of roasted red bell pepper. The meat and cheese version ($13) consists of salami coins, tissues of prosciutto layered like oriental rugs on a dealer's floor, and slices of brie and ibérico cheeses. Olives, too.
The small, shareable plates available from the big board offer more alluring possibilities. We were particularly taken by a set of crispy lentil cakes ($5), which looked like molasses cookies and had some of the character of falafel while being distinct from it. The cumin yogurt dabbed on top helped soothe any dryness and seemed slightly Greek in the bargain.
Dryness was of course not an issue with the tomato bisque ($6), a bowl of cream-infused soup with a hint of smoke for the tomatoes had been roasted and just a bit chunky. (The puréeing had been done with a food mill, perhaps, and not a mercilessly efficient electric device.) And an excellent pizzetta ($5) was tomatoless if not quite bianco; roasted red bell peppers provided a smear of color, while rounds of pepperoni floated on a small sea of melted mozzarella cheese.
The kitchen offers a nightly entrée for those who need a more sustained experience of nourishment. It might well be some sort of baked pasta bucatini ($13), maybe, tossed with corn niblets, mushrooms, and fennel in a cream sauce, with gratings of ibérico cheese on top.
"Too much cheese," one of my companions said. Clearly he had not grown up where I did, in the land where there is no such thing as too much cheese.
Panini make a nice alternative to the nightly entrée. A vegetarian version ($9) might include tomatoes, English cheddar cheese, and a pesto made of several varieties of basil, at least one of which had a definitely minty character. Or it might be meatier ($11): bits of smoked duck with a sweetish ensemble of red onion slivers, fig jam, and some dandelion greens.
The dessert menu suggests that a panna cotta nexus is forming in the neighborhood. Excellent versions can be had at nearby Delfina and Farina, and Paréa's ($6) is comparable, if different. It's scented with vanilla, barely sweet, roughly the consistency of mascarpone, and served in a shallow dish with raspberry coulis. It's also incomparably better than a polenta cake ($6), a dried arrangement that even a studding with cherries and lavish scoops of whipped cream could not redeem. It should be banished from the paréa of desserts.
PARÉA WINE BAR AND CAFÉ
Mon. and Wed.Sun., 5 p.m.midnight
795 Valencia, SF
Beer and wine