To expect to encounter a Basque restaurant in a U.S. city other than New York is tantamount to madness (well, maybe that is a bit over dramatic). A couple of years ago on a visit to San Francisco I happened upon Iluna Basque (closed in December 2010). Also sharing Basque culinary space in the city is Piperade, a highly touted restaurant by chef and author Gerald Hirigoyen (my next visit to San Francisco will see me at this restaurant). Imagine my surprise when planning my most recent visit to the metropolis I found yet another new Basque restaurant – Txoko. A visit was absolutely obligatory. It would turn out to be an experience that I would immensely enjoy and plan to have again.
To truly understand the concept of co-owners Ryan Maxey and Ian Beggs creation one must (mentally) travel to Pais Vasco on the northern coast of Spain. A txoko is a uniquely Basque closed gastronomic society with roots that trace back to the late 1800’s. They have been traditionally open only to men (but many have broached the gender gap and now allow women) where they come together to cook, experiment with new cooking ideas, and socialize. It is through these societies that many virtually extinct Basque recipes were resurrected as well as where many new concepts have come into existence. Their popularity has spread around Spain, but they remain a mainstay of the Basque culture.
Finding haven in a North Beach landmark, Txoko opened about a year ago in the old Enrico’s on Broadway. North Beach boasts a great Basque history and for decades Enrico’s was a place where the community would gather to eat, drink, and socialize. Sound vaguely familiar? It was the perfect marriage, and they have made it work…very well.
I visited Txoko with three friends. After all, how can you enjoy the concept of txoko by yourself? Also accompanying our group was a bottle of 1968 Viña Valoria (D.O. Rioja). We were in excellent company! The openness and warmth of the restaurant instantly welcomes you. From the communal table in the center of the space to large and small tables around the perimeter, there is something for every level of intended interaction.
The menu is varied and exciting. Check out the chalkboard for the day’s specials and pintxos. We started off with boquerones (white anchovies), bacon-wrapped dates, mushroom empanadas, and crispy french fries with espelette and garlic alioli (patatas alioli). Then one of the dishes I had been anticipating the entire trip, foie gras a la plancha. It is served with a golden raisin sauce over caramelized brussels sprouts. Amazing! We were lucky enough to enjoy a 2009 Moscato from Alicante with this dish (thanks Ryan). Who needs Sancerre when you have the perfect pair to foie gras in a Spanish wine? Incidentally (and unfortunately) most who read this will not have the extreme pleasure of this dish as the ban on foie in California goes into effect on July 1, 2012, but there will be those lucky ones who will experience this rich and delicate gastronomic treat. For our entrees we enjoyed the mushroom arroz (rice) as well as what had to be the most tender and juicy chicken I have ever tasted. Order the chicken (or rib eye) at the beginning of your order as both take about 45 minutes to prepare. The chicken was wood-fired with roasted root vegetables, mushroom rice, asparagus, and preserved Meyer lemon.
A bottle of Txakoli (the traditional effervescent and low-alcohol Basque white wine) was the perfect accompaniment for our appetizers; I highly recommend you try it if you have never enjoyed a bottle. The second half of our dinner was complemented by Viña Valoria. Incidentally, the restaurant’s corkage policy quite generous. If you purchase a bottle you can enjoy your own with no corkage fee. What a deal! Txoko also boasts an excellent cocktail menu which is quickly gaining fame throughout the city.
The Basque tradition of txoko is alive and well at Txoko. It is quickly becoming a place where the community (near and far) is congregating for great food and drinks paired with lively conversations. Stop in for a visit and meet some new friends and experience a little bit of the Basque Country in San Francisco.