The story: Aatxe is the latest restaurant from the Ne Timeas Restaurant Group, which brought to San Francisco such popular restaurants as Flour + Water and Central Kitchen. But this latest venture, which opened last month in the Swedish American Hall building on Market Street on the way to the Castro neighborhood, has a Spanish twist because Chef Ryan Pollnow spent some time in San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain.
Why I went: I’d suggested Aatxe as the latest spot for my food blogger gang to check out since I’ve enjoyed my trips to Spain. Joining me this time was the always adventurous Brenda of Bites and Bourbon and always-hungry-but-with-a-small-appetite Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging. We ended up sitting at the chef’s counter, which is a high counter so those chefs working in front of you are working in a sunken floor, giving a bit more of a bird’s-eye view of the stove tops.
The vibe: You won’t spot the restaurant from the outside, with its darken windows and little signage. But when you walk inside, it’s surprisingly large with three distinctive spots: 1) the large bar with communal table in the back, 2) the chef’s counter where all the action is, and 3) the dining room with a Spanish cafe feel. While the feel has some Spanish touches, the sometimes loud pulsating music gives the place more of a lounge vibe.
The menu: Emphasizing Spanish tapas, the limited menu are all about the small plates and pintxos (or snacks, typically served on a toothpick), but there are also a few cheese and charcuterie selections. For people wanting more, there are two large plates offerings. While there are some recognizable Spanish classics such as the patatas bravas ($8.50) and coqueta (this version made with ramp and morel for $3.50), you seem some unusual dishes, probably California-inspired, such as the octopus salad ($12) with kohlrabi and avocado, and the Spanish fried rice ($14) with chorizo, sofrito, and salt cod tortilla.
The booze: There’s a nice listing of wine and beer and four specialty cocktails (developed by the Bon Vivants), so there’s a lot of options to pair your tapas with your drinks. But for me, I can never start a Spanish meal without a nice glass of cava, Spain’s version of sparkling wine. (Aatxe just had one glass for $11, a 2010 Mas Candi.)
My favorite dish: Unfortunately, Sandy and Brenda’s favorite bite of the night was the one I didn’t try, the ramp and morel coqueta (because I generally avoid deep-fried food). And while a lot of other dishes were nice, none stood out or necessarily wowed me. But if I had to name a favorite, I might side with the Spanish fried rice because it was one of the few dishes that packed a lot of flavor. Plus, how can you turn down the golden saffron color served in a beautiful blue bowl?
Insider tip: If you request to sit at the chef’s counter, try to get the seats right at the corner because you’ll get to watch the parade of plates getting their final touches before heading to the tables. We sat closer to the wall, so a bit tucked away and shielded from the action.
The last bite: Just a month old, Chef Pollnow (formerly chef de cuisine at Central Kitchen) seems to be a bit cautious coming out of the block as opposed to making a big splash. Everything was good but feels like the kitchen is holding back to not offend everyone’s taste bud. But I’d like to see more assertiveness and more lively dishes because that’s the spirit of Spain I remember.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Aatxe, 2174 Market St., San Francisco. PH: 415.471.2977. Open daily from 5:30 to 11 p.m. (till midnight on Friday and Saturday). Reservations accepted for parties of up to six guests. Major credit cards accepted. www.aatxesf.com
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