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Ramblas - Chowhound Vino and Tapas

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  • Melanie Wong Aug 19, 2001 04:57 PM
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Ramblas in San Francisco’s Mission was destination #11 in the Bay Area Chowhound 2001 series of field trips. Randy and Kathleen had already scoped this one out for us in a prior visit, and ordered the best of the tapas menu for us to share family style last Wednesday.

As the late arrival (which meant that I have to post the notes), I may have missed one or two of the early dishes. But bless them, they didn’t pop any corks until we were all assembled. I really needed a little vinous relaxation after fighting GG bridge traffic.

Taking advantage of corkage fees of only $10 per bottle, this was another BYOB night and the interesting wines we brought to share were equal to the quality and diversity of the food. The first wine was a Kermit Lynch import, the 2000 vin gris from Domaine Fontesainte in Corbieres. This region is in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, not far away from the Catalan-speaking part of Spain. Here the older residents still speak Occitaine, a dialect closely related to Catalan and Provençal, and when they have shared enough vin y vino, these cousins can understand each other perfectly. Labeled as a “Gris de Gris”, the question naturally came up – why would the French call a pink wine “gray”? The way it had been explained to me is that there are white grapes and there are black grapes, and when a wine is made from something in between, Gallic logic demands that it be gray. A gris de gris must be made from thin-skinned grape varieties designated as gris, such as Cinsault or Grenache gris. Thus, the color of this wine was a pale shell pink rather than the deeper cerise tone that rosés from Languedoc can take on. With an attractive bit of floral aromatics, pretty wild strawberry and sandía flavors, clean acid balance, and dry finish, this was a pleasure to quaff and provided the perfect palate-cleansing opener for our meal.

Next up was the 1994 Montecillo Rioja Reserva from a classic Spanish wine region. While Montecillo has been a conservative producer and slow to change, this vintage marked the first that the wine was aged exclusively in French oak rather than the traditional American cooperage. The more subtle vanilla oak tones mingled well with the earthy aromas and gentle spice in the open-knit nose of this mostly Tempranillo blend. The vivid acidity, pronounced mineral notes, restrained fruit, and dusty finish put this firmly in the old world. Supple, graceful and complex, this wine reminded me again of why I adore Rioja. This bottle was purchased on sale three years ago at Cost Plus for $11, such a deal.

Open at the same time for a fascinating contrast of old and new styles, the 1995 Manuel Manzaneque “Finca Elez” from high elevation in Sierra de Alcarez and entitled to only the Vino de la Tierra (country wine) label was a shining example of the exciting results that can come from passion and introducing modern winemaking technology. Despite its no-name origins in southern Spain, this one can more than hold its own among the more famous Iberian brethren and could easily show up some $35+ Bordelaise bottlings. The hand of the French consulting enologist from the University of Bordeaux shows through in the wine’s modern style crafted with lots of ripeness, new oak signature, fleshy fruit, and suave tannins. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend benefits from addition of a small amount of Tempranillo that adds a uniquely Spanish fire and rhythm to these international grape varieties. Full-bodied, harmonious, and boldly flavored, this one’s not my style but I couldn’t help but admire its high quality and upwardly mobile ambitions. I noticed that this is on Gary Danko’s wine list for $61. Randy said he found it at Tower Market, and if it’s under $20 retail, don’t hesitate to try a bottle.

The final wine was the 1994 Bodegas Alejandro Fernandez “Tinto Pesquera” Reserva Especial Ribera del Duero ($200 at Gary Danko for the 1995 which is not as fine as the 1994). From the Spanish side of the Douro/Duero river valley and made from Tinto País aka Tempranillo, this is one of the greatest wines produced in Spain in the last 10 years. Made from the same lots as the Pesquera Gran Reserva, this was an early release at a slight discount prior to meeting the mandated number of years of bottle aging in order to raise cash for the winery. Now it has hit that mark and still needs at least another five years of cellaring to reach its full potential. Such grand wines usually are tucked away for very special celebrations but the chowhounds lucked out this time --- a bottle was discovered leaking in the cellar, needed to be consumed soon, and why not bring it to our casual tapas dinner. The introduction of some air to the bottle from the faulty cork was beneficial as the wine was much more flamboyant and smooth than the previous two examples tasted in the last couple years. Shockingly rich and concentrated from the first whiff, the dense nose offered up aggressive aromas of roasted chestnuts, espresso, smoke, wild game, stewed plums and blackberry. Voluminous and mouth coating, this powerful wine managed to be hearty and aristocratic at the same time with perfect balance and many layers of flavor that strike long and deep. What a wine!

We did our best to try almost everything on the tapas menu and didn’t come across any real clunkers. My favorites were the roasted calamari with the spicy paprika rub, the juicy clams with the intensely garlicky aroma that floated over the table all evening, sautéed spinach with toasted pine nuts and raisins (that seemed Sicilian to me), and the crunchy patatas brava. The grilled asparagus were on the stringy side but the pungent ajillo more than made up for it. I’ll need some help here to remember the rest. We laughed and talked until we were hoarse.

Randy and Kathleen generously shared their Neiman-Marcus “chocolate of the month club” cookies to end our meal on a sweet note. As they dashed off to bail out the babysitter, the rest of us headed to Bombay Bazaar right across the street for some special ice creams.

Thanks again, Randy, for putting together such a great evening.

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  1. The only early dishes we had (Randy had just told us how bad the traffic from up north was so we weren't sure when Melanie would get there!) were the olives and the marinated mushrooms. The olives were olives - nothing special. The marinated mushrooms were tasty (but I did notice we didn't polish them all off) - good texture and a slight sweetness to the marinade.

    The pork tenderloin was also one of my favorites (altho I'm dreaming of the squid!) - it too was really smoky tasting (maybe from the paprika/spice rub?)

    I think the only things I wouldn't recommend were the romaine hearts with a Spanish-type blue cheese (no notes, so can't remember the name of the cheese) - we thought we needed greens, maybe we were mistaken - the spinach was wonderful - and the shrimp (which seemed overcooked - it came to the table absolutely sizzling in oil, but was a little tough by the time we ate them).

    Thank you very much for sharing that "leaky" bottle of wine - that was absolutely delicious. I'm learning so much just from your postings on the wines after these Chowhound dinners!

    And at Bombay we had the fig, cardamon and I think the saffron, pistachio mix flavors - even had room after all those chocolate chip cookies!

    Thanks again all for a very fun evening!

    1. What did you guys think of Ramblas in general though?

      I ate there shortly after it opened (which means that it deserves another try, of course), and also shortly after I'd returned from Barcelona.

      I thought its general quality was equivalent to a rather below-average place in Barcelona -- overly oily with a lack of subtlety in spicing. I felt a bit disappointed that Ramblas would go to the trouble of flying a chef from Barcelona and end up no better than that.

      Also, the prices at Ramblas are what one would expect to pay in a higher-end place, which made it that much more of a let-down.

      I didn't think it was as good as Charanga, on Mission between 19th and 20th, for example, and in the same league as Timos (Valencia between 19th and 20th), and a bit better than Picaro (16th street between Valencia and Guerrero).

      Also, it's somewhat unfair to compare, but in Barcelona, every tapas place you go to has at least 30 or so different items available with many on display, and I like that variety.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Syre

        You might want to give it another try. I didn't find anything overly oily and a couple of the dishes had a definate spiciness to them (potatoes brava in particular). Like Melanie said we tried almost everything on the menu (but even with the 6 of us we couldn't eat thru their menu) and I only found maybe 2 dishes that I wouldn't recommend (see my earlier post).

        I enjoyed it much more than Timos and even Thirsty Bear (haven't tried the other places) and for a SF restaurant I thought the prices were reasonable. I can't comment on the Barcelona aspect - but how many of us are going to Barcelona anytime soon?!

        1. re: Syre

          I thought the food was quite decent. Some dishes were flat out wonderful (the calamari and the spinach) and not so with others. So the kitchen is uneven and a road map is needed to avoid the potholes.

          As far as the atmosphere, I liked it better now than in the Pintxos incarnation. There's more space between tables and so you feel less packed in. The pacing of the food seems more relaxed. It's still very, very loud though, and we were seated in the back alcove away from the loudest din. When we stepped back out onto Valencia St., which is hardly a quiet neighborhood, it seemed so serene and peaceful.

          I haven't been to Timo's for ages so can't compare. I'd agree with Celery that the food at Ramblas is a step up from Thirsty Bear. I do find it curious that you would offer Charanga for comparison, as it's my understanding that it's more Latin American with Asian influences rather than Spanish or Catalan.

          I haven't been to Barcelona either, but my sense is that not only would you have more variety in a single tapas bar but you would visit many places in a night to have the best from each.