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A Taste of Spain on Chestnut

While the Marina neighborhood offers the usual suspects of dining establishments in terms of choices -- Italian, Classic American, and Mexican -- what’s been missing is something Spanish. While Spain has been the hotbed for gastro-science in the last few years with the fame of El Bulli Restaurant, it seems San Francisco lost interest in the cuisine after the Spanish tapas and paella trend hit over a decade ago. Laiola’s Spanish/Catalan-centric fare and wine remind us that there is still a lot happening in Spain.

Previous establishments Pizza My Heart and Zao did not do so well in this Chestnut/Fillmore location. However, the winning combination of former Frisson managing partner Joe Hargrave and chef Andrew McCormack have kept the no-reservation spot buzzing most nights since its opening.

The L-shaped dining room is dramatic with its handsome, high copper ceiling and extensive bar, which runs the length of the dining space. Tall window boxes reflect the see-and-be-seen Marina-ites whether you’re inside or outside.

We walked in on a Tuesday night around 7 to a packed house. The gracious host quoted us an accurate ten-minute wait and handed us a wine list to peruse. We were impressed to see the large variety of mostly Spanish wines categorized by region and ranging in price mostly from $25-$60. Rather than poured by the glass, wines are served in carafinas, pretty carafes resembling rustic beakers, which measure 1/3 of a bottle. Like Italy’s diverse wine regions, there is much to be explored in Spain.

We ended up at the bar with a view of the open kitchen. We started with the flavorful fuet, a dry-cured Catalan-style pork sausage imparting subtle notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and paprika ($8), and the La Quercia Rossa ($8), a domestic dry-cured ham, Spain’s version of proscuitto, only slightly milder and sweeter. All charcuterie selections are cured in-house.

Appetizers dominate the menu with over fifteen options, all vying for our attention. The cataplana of clams ($11) displayed plump morsels soaked with the delectable broth of garlic, tomatoes and salchichon (a slightly spicy cured pork sausage). Patata bravas ($7) is a great finger-food plate, complemented by a spicy pimenton aioli hinting of citrus.

The bacon-wrapped Medjool dates stuffed with chorizo ($12) were a hit, though a little salt in the mix would have rounded out the sweet elements in this dish. If we could rewind, we would’ve ordered several more appetizers such as the grilled octopus or the “esquixada” of halibut (similar to a ceviche) in place of the main courses, which are obviously not the focus of this menu as the four selections didn’t pop like the appetizers.

The bistec a la parilla ($22), a flatiron steak finished with a dollop of Cabrales butter, was a slight letdown after the appetizers. A typical blue cheese adds a nice oomph to a steak, but the Spanish Cabrales version literally coats the palate, overwhelming anything it was meant to enhance, so the flavor of the steak was lost. The slow-roasted piglet ($19), on the other hand, was extremely tender and nicely paired with a bright quince aioli. Our side of peas & onions ($6) was a nice summery addition that tasted freshly picked from the garden.

We finished with a Crema Catalana ($7) for dessert. The Spanish version of a crème brulee was lovely -- a delicate balance of orange piquancy and a sprinkling of pink peppercorns.
There are plenty of reasons to go to Laiola. If this is a hint of what Spain has to offer, Laiola makes us want to go to there.


Reservations Essential? No.