Basking in Basque
I had dinner at the BCC a couple of weeks ago. I walked away extremely disappointed -- the dinner menu, flavors, and presentation reminded me of nothing so much as a mediocre hof-brau somewhere in the Midwest. I forget exaqctly what my party had, but aside from the green soup served family-style, everything was bland, insipid, overcooked, and under-presented. The service was, to use a kind word, incompetent, featuring multiple waiters in turn forgetting to take our orders, essaying to clear plates while forks were still in mouths, and having zero knowledge of the menu. I do make allowances here for it being a cultural center and not a three-star establishment, although the prices were on par with trendy restaurants - main dishes up to $20. Drawbacks notwithstanding, the place was absolutely packed with Basque-speaking patrons, most over 60, so packed that we had to wait 45 minutes for our table despite having reservations.
Having read over the thread I am now doubly disappointed. If the Basque cuisine is as sublime as the other posters note, it was certainly not well represented by the BCC. But I do not despair. I am going to Le Chalet Basque in San Rafael tonight. A full report to follow...
Started to respond to this thread the other day and computer or AOL went dead.
Years ago, there were several mostly French Basque places in North Beach--a couple with only family tables, upstairs at pensions (du Midi and Obrero), which allowed outsiders in the know to join in, and the venerable Hotel de France, which had a public dining room and a bar but served its boarders and others "friends of the family" at a long table with a different menu from the public one, far tastier and more exciting. On holidays, it was closed to the public. I had my first baccala (brandade de morue, actually), my first capretto, and other wonderful culinary experiences there. Two of the very best cooks I've ever had the privilege of encountering headed the kitchen in succession. Both were French-Basque, as were, later on, most of the sous-chefs, etc. at the great La Bourgogne, as was the chef at L'Orangerie--subsquently and possibly still the Gettys' chef.
One of the above-mentioned started, I believe, the Cultural Center, so I was especially surprised to read that most of the clientele was now Spanish-Basque.
For a number of years I had the privilege of attending some of the great Basque "picnics" that took place around the state. The men--some professional chefs, some amateurs--prepared the barbecued lamb, the women, in typical French fashion, brought all the accoutrements of a meal at home--tablecloths, plates. silver, glasses, and all the side dishes. Lots of wine, always live music and dancing. Incredible experiences. Again, these were primarily French Basques.
We visited the hometowns in France of some of the guys we knew here; I remember one with a pelote court at the far end of a main street!
I never cared for des Alpes--lots of cheap but mass-prepared food with little autheticity or flavor, in my opinion.
Never been to the Basque center, but have eaten in Basque places all over Nevada...and some in San Francisco (when they were around). Frankly, its the ambiance, not the food. I have never had really good food in a Basque place, but have had enjoyable meals. My only criticism is that too much food is served... and often the patrons do not know the drill. We were in Martin's in Winnemucca a few years ago (I guess our favorite place) and had to explain in detail to our tablemates (first time) what to expect. They were indeed blown away by the variety and quantity. But, the quality leaves something to be desired. However, it really is fun and everyone should sit down in a good Basque restaurant at least once. I've always thought it a tragedy that SF doesn't have a first-class Basque restaurant...but we don't even have a decent Greek place!
re: Jim H.
Remember that the origin of the Basque-American places in the western states was to feed the working man. Quantity was very important and the style was more homestyle and hearty rather than the high cuisine that the Basque region renowned for throughout Spain. This was ranch food.
The Basque Cultural Center is a little step up from the boarding houses that we knew in SF. A little more refined cooking that feels closer to European.
re: Melanie Wong
Melanie, yeah, Basque food back home is a sublime, varied thing (even the stubborn, proud Spaniards consider it superior), but the Basque food out west is meat 'n spuds (nothing against meat 'n spuds, mind you!).
A close analogy would be to the Chinese immigrant railroad worker cooking which eventually evolved into Chinese-American cuisine...all of it a far far cry from serious Cantonese food.
As with Basque, it also reflects two other issues: 1. class (the Basques and Cantonese who came to the American west were not aristocrats by any means, and their taste was not geared toward high cuisine) and 2. non-training (the pro chefs of both countries mostly stayed home; it was manual laborers who emigrated, and they didn't really know how to cook...so they "winged it", with a lot of help--and thus fusion--from other immigrants and Americans).
Also lack of ingredients was obviously a huge factor for both (Basque is a real seafood-heavy cuisine, and thus quite at a loss around Utah, where a lot of them first congregated!)
re: Jim Leff
This biased view of what's Basque may be why two Spanish-Basque restaurants have failed in SF in the last couple years, and why Gerald Hirogoyen (French Basque) doesn't attempt more dishes of his heritage at Fringale. Your analogy to the perception of Cantonese food in the US is a good one, and I'd add one more point. The Basque sheepherders who migrated to the American West were from the mountainous rural regions, not the beaches of San Sebastian. Similarly, the Cantonese laborers who worked the railroads hailed from Toishan and were brought here for their skill in working stone and building mountain passes as they had at home. Their local cuisine was not based on the seafood of the Pearl River delta.
One of my wine groups puts on an annual dinner celebrating a specific wine district and its cuisine. Two years ago, because it was Papa Hemingway's 100th birthday, I had suggested Basque to celebrate the running of the bulls. Boy, did I get a lot of push-back! Comments like - I'm not eating lamb fries or what kind of wine goes with mountain oysters? Unfortunately, their view of Basque food was limited to the cookouts of the local laborers who tend Sonoma County's sheep too. To open their eyes, I circulated the memo below as a primer on things Basque to make my case and did prevail.
The Basques call themselves Euskadi. As Gods chosen people, they believe that their tongue was the language of the world before the Tower of Babel. Their national game of Pilotak (pelote), a form of handball, claims its origins in the garden of Eden played with Eves apple.
The name Basque is derived from the Latin name for the country of Vasconia which covered much of the eastern Pyrenees, the current Basque homelands and extended far beyond into central France and Spain. The name of the ancient province of Gascogne in France, the land of dArtagnan and foie gras, is derived from the same root. Today the Basque homelands are limited to four provinces in Spain Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya, Alava (part of the Rioja DOC) and Navarra in the industrialized north and three provinces in France Labourd, Basse-Navarre and Soule, among the most rural and poor in France. However, their culinary and cultural influence extended far beyond these political boundries as evidenced by Basque place names throughout Gascony and Spain. Today their resorts along the Bay of Biscay are playgrounds for the rich and famous.
A land of mountains and sea, the Basque culinary tradition is among the richest on the continent. The finest and most original chefs in Spain are Basque and every major city has a fine Basque dinner house. Cooking in the home is considered womens work, yet Basque men are avid gastronomes and hobby cooks in their eating societies. So embedded in the Basque way of life is the enjoyment of food and wine, the fueros, the Basque ancient code, placed limits on the amounts that could be spent on wedding parties to avoid family bankruptcy.
Basques were the first whalers and sailed ships larger than Christopher Columbus corsairs in this pursuit. Evidence points to Basque fisherman in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the banks of New Foundland as early as 1372, well before Columbus reached the New World. Many Basques accompanied Columbus on his voyages and brought back new foods from their adventures. The cod fisheries of the New World contributed to the Basque love of salt cod in all its forms. This seafaring tradition inspired a rich palette of seafood dishes: Ttoro, a signature seafood stew; Anchovies in Txokoli wine; Stuffed crabs; Baked bass with piperade, and many other examples.
The mountains produce fine cheeses, lamb, baby kid and some beef. The tail of the bull from the foot race in Pamplona is a special delicacy. Egg dishes are a typical snack or lunch course and the most well-know Basque dish is probably eggs with piperade (peppers, tomatoes and onions).
The French chocolate industry in centered in the Basque city of Bayonne, also known for its famous hams. Being less well-off, the French provinces have contributed many vegetable dishes. Piment despelette is a delicate form of red pepper for a distinctively Basque taste (and now imported by Corti Brothers). And, contrary to popular thought, Bernaise sauce did not originate here, and was created in Paris to honor the popular King Henry IV of Navarre.
Apple cider is the traditional daily drink of the region. Wine regions in the Basque regions and influence include Irouleguey, Rioja Alavesa, Jurançon, Bearn, Madiran and Txokoli. Henry IVs first taste of the world was sweet Jurançon, placed on his lips by his grandfather. Writers have also celebrated this great wine: Collette said, When I was a young girl, I was introduced to a passionate Prince, domineering and two-timing like all the great seducers; Jurançon.
8-wine program recommended
Txakolina Bizkaiko blanc
Béarn rouge (Madiran)
old Rioja Alavesa tinto
Jurançon moelleaux dessert wine
re: Melanie Wong
Agreed! But wouldn't it be nice to have a really nice Basque restaurant in SF? Or would it be too close to traditional French? I think the problem is that when one speaks of Basque dining around these parts, one thinks of "boardinghouse" cuisine, rather than the cuisine of the region of France/Spain.
re: Jim H.
re: Jim H.
I am a freshman at St. Mary's College, and am from Boise, Idaho. I am a full blown Basque and speak it fluently. Being surrounded by fellow Basques in what is called the sister city to Gernika, I think I have the experience to say that before one gives up on quality (v.s.) quantity of Basque food, come to Boise. We had one of the best Basque restaurants in the US, called Onati. Although the owner, Jesus, closed it to open yet another in the Basque Country, we have another wonderful place in Meridian, Epi's, which is only 25 minutes from Boise.
The Basque Cultural Center has good food, a nice ambience, decent service, and fair prices. Basque food is a sort of combination of French, mountain, and Spanish influences.
They no longer offer the extra meat dish, which was usually a stew between the soup and salad and the main dish, but you won't go hungry.
Their broiled meats, especially lamb, are probably your best bets.
Popular with groups for parties. Reserve if possible.
(Jai Alai courts adjoin.)