Cauliflower Soup, Prime Rib, Lamb Stew
Occupation: Sales Executive
Location: San Mateo
Favorite Restaurant: Basque Cultural Center
Reviewed Basque Cultural Center:Tuesday, January 30, 2009
The Basque Cultural Center delivers one of the best, heartiest, and consistently delicious meals available in the Bay Area. The BCC is truly a find. It’s off the beaten path, to be sure, and an extremely unique dining experience. Typical of the first experience, my friends had to do a double take to make sure they were in the right place. The facility looks like a conference center or a meeting hall and one that you would not expect to find a restaurant in. The BCC started in SF proper and moved around a few times before settling in South San Francisco in a facility large enough to meet their needs. This restaurant more or less exists to support the ongoing efforts of the cultural center, whose activities include Basque language classes, movies/talks on Basque-related topics, and, of course, the game of Basque pelota. The BCC features its own court (or fronton) for the game, which is similar to handball and has several variants.
Anyway, located in the southern reaches of South San Francisco and well removed from the Grand Avenue downtown area, lives the BCC. The center has its own parking lot with plenty of spaces, and the restaurant is located at the front of the center. There isn’t much of a view, but this place is more about having a meal among friends in a cozy, simply laid-out space. There’s a small bar area near the entrance to the restaurant, and the walls are adorned with parchment colored wallpaper and a few pictures. Since the restaurant is volunteer-supported, it wouldn’t surprise me if you were really eating grandma’s cooking here. I’d come over to grandma’s everyday for this cooking.
While Basque country geographically spans both Spain and France, this restaurant’s menu is markedly French, as evidenced by such items as rabbit chasseur, veal Forestière, and Magre de Canard au poivre vert. That being said, some Spanish things will show up from time to time, such as an off-menu special of pork loin stuffed with manchego cheese. The Bay Area has several restaurants that seem to feature food from both countries. Iluna Basque in North Beach, for instance, is a much different Basque experience than here.
Never having dined here on a Tuesday night, I was excited to try their Tuesday night special, which is described as a “Family Style” meal, with two entree courses, one relatively smaller course, and a second, more substantial dish. No matter what entree one orders, salad and soup will always be served; the salad here is consistently excellent. Served on chilled plates, it’s an endive and lettuce salad with a creamy tarragon dressing, which is just extremely refreshing and delicious. Every time I’ve come, the soup has been different, but each time I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. This time, it was a creamy puree of spinach, which was delicious. My chicken crêpe was much like a creamy chicken soup, like a pot pie filling, yet inside a thin crêpe. It honestly wasn’t up there with some of the better dishes that I’ve eaten here. The veal roast that came next, however, was absolutely delicious. Served were two large extremely thin slices of veal with what seemed like a port wine sauce. This was served, as most entrees are here, with roasted potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, and green beans.
Other than some impeccably created food, one of the highlights of the Basque Cultural Center is the tremendous value. Everything I just mentioned — the soup, salad, two dishes, and the vanilla ice cream I had for dessert — was $19.95. That amount of food for $19.95 in the Bay Area is almost unheard of. My friends enjoyed other entrees. One of them had the pepper steak, which I was told was “amazing,” and a roast rack of lamb that my friend admitted he “inappropriately sucked the meat off the bones of but [didn't] care because it was so good.” For the 6 of us, we ordered 2 bottles of 2000 Campo Viejo, a red from Spain’s Rioja region, a portion of which extends into Basque country. The cost of the wine? $30/bottle. There is virtually no mark-up on the wine list here, as they seek to not overcharge those patronizing the Center. Beyond vanilla ice cream, the table shared frozen almond nougat, a chocolate mousse, which was among the most decadent I think I’ve ever had, and the crème caramel, essentially a custard similar to flan. Every dessert was enjoyable with the chocolate mousse being my favorite.
While there certainly are some dishes I like above others, there is not much bad to say about this place, and unless you crave the kind of atmosphere that attracts a chic crowd and a view, you will not get a better meal for the value anywhere. Sunday night’s special is lamb stew and prime rib for $20.95. Pretty awesome, if you ask me. The warm, friendly and attentive service really seals the deal.
This is a great place to take friends for a different experience, and everyone I take here is amazed that this place could turn out food as good as this. Try it for yourself, and you’ll see.
Occupation: Legal Administrator
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Mescolanza Restaurant
Reviewed Basque Cultural Center: Sunday, December 6, 2008
The Basque Cultural Center was a wonderful surprise in the middle of South San Francisco. It’s easy to get to as well. Coming from San Francisco, I took the 101 freeway, going south towards SFO airport. Took the Grand Avenue exit, veered left for one block, and turned right on to Grande Avenue. Drove straight through the charming small town atmosphere of South San Francisco to Magnolia Street, turned left, and drove down a few blocks to find the rather large Basque Cultural Center and its own fenced-off parking lot right in the middle of a small residential neighborhood. The building looked so inviting with all the pretty Christmas tree lights strung around the windows and even on the parking lot fence. My two best friends from childhood, Rawyline and Kathy, came with me to this restaurant to celebrate my birthday. There was plenty of parking available in the lot, and the spaces were actually the size of regular cars (not like most San Francisco parking lots with teeny, tiny spaces). Things were starting off well!
You enter the lobby to find what looks like the ballroom floor of any large hotel. To the right was a large dining room that reminded me of a hotel restaurant. There was a long bar where people were sitting and enjoying cocktails. The bar area was separated from the dining area by a long wooden barrier that separated the space. The dining side was filled with an assortment of tables, many of which were family sized (seating eight to 12 people). We had to wait about 20 minutes for our table (understandable given it was the holiday season). We were seated by the matriarch of the family at a four-person table.
Our server was a young man intent on getting us our food quickly once he learned it was my birthday. He was knowledgeable about everything on the menu, and explained to us what “Family Style” dinners meant. He brought us a basket of delicious, warm French bread with butter and water and then took our food order. He brought us a very large metal tureen of rich, savory vegetable soup. The tureen had enough soup in it to serve each of us two medium-sized bowls of soup. The broth was earthy, rich, thick, flavorful and studded with small chopped vegetables and some sort of bulgur wheat. All three of us commented that we had never tasted such a flavorful vegetable soup and finished the whole bowl, all the while dipping the soft, warm French bread into it.
Next came a large plate of soft butter lettuce with a creamy green goddess-Roquefort salad dressing. It was a great mix and required nothing else on the plate. Needless to say, we each emptied our salad plate.
We ordered the prosciutto and melon and escargot (snails baked in a rich buttery/garlic sauce) for appetizers. The prosciutto (a thinly sliced Italian ham) had that soft, buttery texture, and was full of flavor. It was paired with thin slices of cantaloupe melon meant to be eaten together. A nice surprise in your mouth with the flavor of the slightly salty ham and the juicy, ripe sweet taste of melon. The escargot was nicely prepared and delicious, but the sauce it came in was outstanding! Rawyline ended up being given most of the escargot, as Kathy and I were too busy dipping our bread into the heavenly garlic-butter sauce. Needless to say, our table ate enough bread that the other diners might have been in danger of going breadless.
By the time our main entrees arrived we were already almost full! We did not realize that the portions of food (soup, salad, bread) served were soooooooooooo LARGE. Even though we were almost stuffed, we did not give in to the temptation of taking the entrees home in a doggie bag. We took a break and ordered cocktails from the full-service bar. Rawyline had a Fuzzy Navel, I had a Bloody Mary, and Kathy had a Diet Coke. We sat back, drank our cocktails and hoped for gas bubbles to make extra room for more food. Once we unsnapped the top buttons of our pants and loosened the zipper on the skirt we were ready to go again!
I had the lamb and prime rib entree. The waiter brought me a small bowl of lamb in a zesty and flavorful tomato based sauce. Now mind you, I don’t even like the taste of lamb, but I decided to be adventurous. Lo and behold, it was really tasty! It did NOT have that gamey taste that I don’t like. I ate it all with some more of that bread to sop up all the tasty drippings. The prime rib was served on a plate in its own juices and a small dollop of horseradish/sour cream sauce that was excellent. The meat was cooked medium well and still retained its juicy, soft texture.
Rawyline had the pepper steak in cognac sauce. It was a large New York steak encrusted with cracked black pepper. The sauce was heavenly. It came with rice pilaf and an assortment of fresh vegetables.
Kathy ordered the grilled prawns in a basil and garlic gauce. As with all of my friends and such tasty food, we each ended up sampling all the food on each of our plates. The prawns were large, succulent, and numerous. The sauce they came in was rich, buttery, and full of the earthy taste of garlic.
By the time dessert rolled around, we could not order anything else. My dinner came with a bowl of vanilla ice cream, which we ate. Once that was accomplished, we could no longer button up that top button on our pants, nor zip the zipper on the skirt, so we just put on our coats to cover our clothing malfunctions and wobbled outside to our cars.
What a night!
Occupation: Travel Writer
Favorite Restaurant: Alexander’s Steakhouse
Reviewed Basque Cultural Center: Wednesday December 3, 2008
“Yep. Definitely the Elks Lodge set.” Surrounded by grandmas and grandpas, that’s what my friend Marty said when we looked around at the Basque Cultural Center in December.
When I first walked into the dining room of the Basque Cultural Center, the serene pastel walls and oak chairs and tables with white tablecloths reminded me of an upscale rest home dining room.
Don’t get me wrong. Everything was nicely painted, very clean, but had an old fashioned feel from the gold-gilded framed art of peasant farmers to the scarlet red flourished carpeting. The adjacent banquet rooms were bustling with an art auction in one, and some type of women’s guild with dancing Irish girls in another. The dining room at the Basque looks almost identical to the many banquet rooms. In fact, we were confused between which was the restaurant versus which one was the banquet room.
So, while you won’t come for the hip, ultra-chic décor, you’ll love the food – hearty, generous in portion size, delightful to the palate, and reminiscent of old-style home cooking.
It was difficult to decide what to order. The cultural center has a vast and eclectic menu with dinner prices ranging from $12.50 for penne pasta to $25 for rack of lamb, the restaurant’s biggest seller. There are “family style” dinners (one specialty for each day of the week) that include soup, salad, two entrees, and ice cream for under $21.
There is a tempting menu that is fascinating with lots of entrees: veal sweetbreads, cassoulet, beef tongue, duck legs confit, rabbit chasseur. I chose the oxtail stew, the Wednesday special, while Marty chose the lamb loin with roasted potatoes and vegetables.
For dessert, my meal came with spumoni ice cream, but we were so intrigued about the unusual dessert selection that I chose an extra dessert, so we wound up with the gâteau Basque and the frozen almond nougat in addition to my spumoni.
I was jubilant with the $19.95 oxtail family dinner that came with homemade cauliflower soup. Let me tell you, that soup was exceptional and surprising. I was not expecting much from the soup since I’m not a big cauliflower lover.
Within minutes of our order, the waiter came with a huge metal bowl and spooned soup into two large bowls. It was so much that I couldn’t finish, and I wanted to save my stomach for the rest of my meal. The pale, white soup had the right touch of flavor with simple ingredients: pureed cauliflower in broth that tasted fresh with hints of onion and butter. I was thankful it was not a heavy or cream-filled soup, but light and flavorful instead.
When the kind waiter brought over my plate of oxtail covered with tiny parsley bits and a hearty wine-based gravy, I was ecstatic. The aroma preceded its arrival! I always know what the rest of the dining experience is going to be with that all-important First Bite. And so, upon that first forkful, I simply grinned. “This is going to be good,” I thought to myself.
Each bite of oxtail was exquisite — fork tender, the meat fell off the bone, but was not overcooked and braised to death. Well, it was dead, of course, but not leathery.
My taste buds were doing giddy cartwheels. Juicy and moist, the meat was full of a deep, rich, meaty flavor that didn’t disappoint me at all. The sides were comprised of a soft rice and a mélange of vegetables (green and white beans, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts) that complimented the meal well. There was so much I had to box up half the dish to take home.
Marty ordered the lamb loin. She got five nice slices and felt the portion also was generous, but not over-the-top. While her roasted potatoes were cooked to perfection, she felt her vegetables were too rich and buttery.
Dessert was very reasonable at this restaurant. While most places are charging upwards of $8 and $9 for dessert, the Cultural Center’s sweets run $5 and less. I was fascinated with the frozen almond nougat ($5), which turned out to be whipped cream folded in with sugared, toasted almonds and honey with a thin crust. The entire cream concoction is molded into a log and sliced. Presentation was lovely, as it was placed atop a small pool of fresh raspberry sauce, dusted with cocoa.
The other dessert, the gâteau Basque, was an average dessert that consisted of a pie shaped slice of a firm almond custard ensconced in a thin crust. Both of us agreed that it paled in comparison to the refreshing almond nougat. So the gâteau Basque was something akin to a tart you’d find at a Starbuck’s café.
Surprising to both of us was the large scoop of spumoni ire cream that was bursting with flavor and was creamy and delicious.
Service here was quick and courteous. Our waiter was very attentive and explained all the dishes well, and we were pleased with his friendliness and willingness to answer our questions.
I relished the home-style, hearty, robust cooking at the Basque Cultural Center, and while other restaurants rise and fall according to trends of the day, it’s good to know that an old fashioned, down-to-earth place like this exists to feed its customers with honest food at decent, but not bargain, prices.
Yet, being 45 minutes away from my home, I doubt that I could make the drive just for the oxtail stew. And as a diner who values ambiance equal to food quality, my problem with the place was the senior home atmosphere that made me feel old. The dishware was the institutional white ceramic stuff you find in cafeterias. The long wood bar with the hard liquor yards in the dining room was reminiscent of a 60s lodge. Thumbs up for food, thumbs down for the scenery!