Some of the tastiest meals I’ve ever had were in Spain.
Most memorable to me were the tapas bars. Walking through the streets of Bilbao, I fondly recall walking into wine bar after wine bar to buy a glass of wine and be offered a fabulous array of delicious “tapas” — free of charge. On the first night, this American went crazy and after two bars, was so full that I couldn’t drink anymore wine. I was also the not the only American to do this. If you saw anyone in these bars gorging on these delicious free treats — you could put down money immediately that they were from the U.S. — including me.
Who could really blame us? Nowhere in the US do they throw out free food (except maybe peanuts?) for buying a glass of wine! It’s like a party in Spain….until 90 minutes later, you’re sober and in your hotel room, stuffed to gills at 7:30 P.M.
By the second night, call me a quick learner, but I took on and mastered the art of “nibbling”. Small plate after plate, bite after bite, it was about pacing yourself to hit up at least 3-4 wine bars on any given night. If I didn’t exceed more than one small serving per glass of wine, I could, in theory, last all night.
From these tapas bars to specialty restaurants, Spain offered up some outstanding cooking. It’s conceivable that if I lived in Spain, I could live off of buying wine every night, nibbling on tapas and never going anywhere else.
So when I was invited to try a new Spanish restaurant in San Francisco — it was one of the few restaurant invitations that I accepted.
Let me digress for a bit.
As someone who writes about food — you get invited to a lot of restaurants, especially new restaurant openings. When I was new to the scene, I accepted a few times…only to realize this puts me in a really odd predicament. Many new restaurants, put simply, don’t know what on earth they’re doing in the beginning…and there’s very little that’s worse than ripping a restaurant’s food apart after not even paying for your meal.
I learned quickly that this doesn’t really jive with me. It’s one thing to not be able to afford the meal and go because I’m hungry — but it’s another entirely when they’re comping you your meal and then you realize one bite in that you’re really, REALLY going to hate this meal. When it’s a media dinner with a bunch of us invited to taste the food, it’s fair game — if it’s not good, I can say as much without any conflict. But when they host you to dinner — I’ll not post a review before saying it’s good when it’s not, or blasting it with a review after a free meal.
Now, more often than not, I’ll turn down an invitation.
So what made Beso an exception?
First, a tapas restaurant offers a restaurant a BIG chance of making at least one or two good things — things that I could rave about while knocking the remainder. Second, Beso is owned by the owners of Bisou — which means they knew what to do BEFORE opening a restaurant; this meant they could at least meet the basic minimum so as not to piss me off before the appetizer.
The menu at Bisou has quite a few items in each section of cold appetizers, hot appetizers, entrees and so forth. On this evening, I decided to ask for recommendations instead of picking and choosing.
At any Spanish restaurant, I order the patatas bravas — the staff member recommended it, too. The combination of potatoes with paprika just does it for me, and finding it served with a garlic aioli, I immediately ordered this dish. The potatoes were nicely cooked with the outside intact but the middle nice and soft. The tomato and paprika seasoning was really good, but overall, this dish was a tad under-salted for my taste. It wasn’t the sauce — the potatoes themselves required a little more salt. But I’d order this dish again; between the two of us, we cleaned it off. I’ve seen some restaurants drench the potatoes in wet sauce — but Beso’s patatas bravas were on point with the sauce nicely laid on the bottom.
The cured pork loin called Lomo Iberico, was nice and salty — pure flavor. This is to Spain as Kobe is to Japan; Iberico pigs are only fed acorn. I wasn’t drinking at this dinner, but one bite of it made me crave a cold, white wine. The smokiness was distinct and the more you chewed, it yielded an herb-like flavor mixed in with a very light fatty note. The cheese that was suggested to be paired with this particular meat was the Aged Mahón — a hard cheese that was quite sharp. Both the meat and cheese offered different levels of nuttiness to them.
Also notable on this dish was the quince “jam” cubes, which lent an exquisite sweetness to the pairing — you needed only the grapes or only the quince. The housemade almond bread was good on its own, but I didn’t think it held its own against the main flavors of the meat and cheese, and quietly disappeared into the background.
Next up was the cojonudos. In Spanish, the term commonly refers to being ballsy or brave, but in general, it’s known to describe this pairing of cured meat and a quail egg atop toast. The saltiness of the thin slice of chorizo with the perfect quail egg was fantastic. It’s about two bites, and two pieces of toast are offered per order.
I’d highly recommend kicking off your meal with Cojonudos. They offered several combinations of montados — which can refer to any combination of toppings atop “toast”, usually a baguette. The Cojonudos were the simplest — but there’s also fishier combinations with anchovies, or tuna, or a creamier vegetable-based, pine-nut topped montado. I’d have had no problem having both to myself — so that’s something to keep in mind.
Next up was a classic Spanish dish called pulpo a la plancha — a combination of octopus with potatoes and roasted peppers. When octopus is cooked correctly, little in the seafood world compares to it, but anyone who cooks knows it is NOT easy to cook octopus. I have to give it to Beso — they did a great job with this difficult seafood. I was told they blanched it ever so slightly and then grilled it — but however they made it, it wasn’t chewy and sliced easily. Combined with the roasted potatoes and peppers — the dish, albeit quite small for $18, was enough to give two of us enough bites to feel satiated. For four people, you’d have to order two dishes, I think…unless you plan on having exactly one bite each.
I thought this was very good — but it would begin to pale next to the goodness that lied ahead…. keep reading.
Off the bat, I’ll say that this is one of my favorite tapas dishes, in general. You could give it to me raw, cooked, browned, orange – whatever – I’d probably still like it.
So it breaks my heart to say this, but this is the only dish of the evening I didn’t like. The shrimp was a tad overcooked — but I can live with that. If I found the patatas bravas bland, I found this at the other extreme. There isn’t enough bread in the world to sop up oil this salty. Each piece of shrimp was so salty I felt like crying — knowing I’ll be turning down shrimp. I love shrimp!
The garlicky flavor was less than I’d expect of gambas al ajillo…but it could be that I couldn’t taste anything past the salt.
I tried one shrimp and one piece of bread (which they use as mitts on the handles of the skillet — so cute!) — and put it down. No can do.
I should note that Mr. K finished even the extra pieces of bread they offered us and the remaining shrimp. He agreed that it was so incredibly salty — but he just said that it’s just okay — and then ate the remainder of the shrimp. But even after a lot of baguette slices – there was still a lot of “sauce” left.
I have this thing, though. Once I get overwhelmed by some part of a meal, I lose a lot of my ability to taste. For example, if you serve something too salty or too sour, I quite honestly can’t taste again afterwards for a good long time until I can get up, go drink somewhere, and at my next meal, the memory and taste of that previous accident is gone. Having two additional courses we ordered — the main stars, no less — I became really worried I’d no longer be able to taste anything but salty shrimp and oil.
But then came this beautiful dish. It’s a dish that makes you feast first with your eyes — and the flavors in this dish made all of my apprehensions fade to the background.
Huh? What gambas?
The paella at Beso is a serving for two — and frankly, after the number of dishes we ate, despite how delicious it is, we had leftovers because there was no way to consume all of it. If you want to finish you paella, I suggest cutting your order by a dish or two.
This dish is pure flavor.
The seasoning has a significant tone of Mexican mole sauce — exuding more pepper flavor than tomatoes. The rice is quite risotto-like, cooked to perfection and pressed down in the pan and brought to your table still cooking. I didn’t ask what kind of rice it was, but it’s sticky yet fluffy. Combined with the deep and sexy flavors of the sauce, it’s packed with flavor. But even more impressive is the seafood atop this dish. In this dish, the shrimp was ideally cooked — juicy and sweet. The clams and mussels were out of this world — barely cooked through, the flavors are so incredible! Because so few places cook mussels correctly, I usually can’t say I love mussels — but Beso’s mussels are divine. Each part of this dish is seasoned wonderfully, and even after 10 minutes on the table, each bite of paella was outstanding.
While I was devouring my paella, another superstar emerged. The carne a la plancha at Beso is fabulous. Cooked to a nice medium-rare (which was recommended and preferred), each bite of the hanger steak is exquisite.
The meat, much like flank but more tender, flows with juiciness and has the ideal amount of salt to season the steak. With the vegetables on the dish, it was great — but with this fascinatingly good hazelnut romanesco sauce on the bottom, the dish shines. I didn’t actually taste much hazelnut in the sauce, but there are notes of creaminess with sourness that acts as the perfect backdrop to make the flavors of the meat pop.
Seasoning is, to a degree, subjective. It’s easy for something to taste perfect to me, but be a tad bland or a tad salty for you. And looking back at the other dishes which were on point, it’s not a far stretch for me to conclude that Beso cooks some really delicious dishes.
Also really notable at Beso was the service.
As I was invited and they knew I was coming to review the restaurant, it’s not surprising that I was treated well. But looking around and eavesdropping, they treated everyone well.
But throughout my hour and a half dinner, I found the entire experience quite reminiscent of Europe.
Being on a busy street in the Castro area of San Francisco, there’s a lot of foot traffic walking by. With nice curb appeal and a very open feel to the front of the restaurant, people passing by would often stop to look at the menu. Without fail, someone from Beso would stroll out to help and welcome them, despite having the restaurant pretty packed on a Friday evening. The owners themselves would go out to greet them, or even the wait staff would entice them to come in. Toward the end of my dinner, there was no sitting room but the Beso staff still welcomed people off the street.
Not surprisingly, many of them opted to wait for awhile until a seat was available.
Beso sources all of their produce from a farm in the Napa Valley region focused on permaculture. This farm’s produce is exclusively available to the Bisou Group restaurants, including their other restaurant in San Francisco, Bisou. Their coffee supplier is also in Napa, with Beso’s coffee beans originating from Brazil and Vietnam. After learning this, I felt compelled to try the espresso — which was strong and quite acidic.
It also provided a nice ending to our meal — which was then punctuated by the San Francisco Giants winning their fate-determining game to once again enter the World Series! I knew even without a television because the Castro district broke into a sudden uproar coming from the multiple bars around Beso. Even though I’m not a baseball fan, I couldn’t help but smile…but within minutes, we knew we had to rush to be the insane traffic heading out of the city.
I’d absolutely recommend Beso for a Spanish tapas option in the city. We have quite a few in San Francisco, but Beso’s paella is easily one of the finest in the city. I still wipe mental drool off my face when I think about that paella! With a good array of dishes, there’s sure to be something that suits everyone on the menu — and with the outstanding service, a good time is all but guaranteed at Beso.