Thursday, December 4, 2008

Zarzuela -- Top notch whichever way you look at it

2000 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 346-0800

Ask me what my favorite restaurant in California is and there won't be a pause so that I can think about it. There is no hesitation when I say with absolute certainty, it's Zarzuela.

The very first time I visited this cozy little restaurant was when I attended a high school friend's wedding back in 1997. I was still living in Hong Kong then, and was a little jaded by the constant bombardment of luxurious foods such as foie gras, caviar, abalone, white truffles and whatever top chefs would throw my way. After the wedding, my friends brought their cousin, who was visiting from Australia, and myself, to the city for a bit of sightseeing as well as dinner at Zarzuela.

I was hugely surprised at how simple and delectable the dishes were. Most of the tapas were presented in earthen dishes without much flair -- although these days, it's a lot different. The only thing I remember is, it was love at first bite.

Fast forward a few years and there I was trying to figure out what sort of a wedding I wanted and Zarzuela immediately came to mind. I wanted a small, intimate dinner with the most delicious things to commemorate my special day. It was an affair my friends still talk about to this day.

Now, 10 years later, we still return to Zarzuela whenever we are in the Bay Area. On our last trip, we brought 6 of our friends with us and it was just as memorable as my first visit. Of course now, the Zarzuela family has become 'our' family. We are always greeted warmly by co-owner and maitre d' Andy Debanne. We always sit in Arturo's section and we always go around back to say hello to Lucas Gasco, the owner and chef. These are the given. And in return, we get 5 star service from Arturo and food that is like the foods of the gods.

We usually start off with some cold appetizers: bocarones or white anchovies are a favorite. These are lightly pickled and served with salad leaves, never overpowering and definitely nothing like any anchovies you've ever tasted. Whoever your server may be, you can be sure they are knowledgeable about the menu and will make suitable recommendations should you ask.

Hot tapas you should definitely try are the camarones al ajillo or garlic shrimp, chorizo, and any specials of the day. We tend to fill up on tapas but if you want an entree instead of filling up on tapas, then the lamb chops are highly recommended. My son loves Zarzuela and everyone knows he only wants the lobster bisque and calamares or fried calamari and let me tell you, this child has some very adult taste buds!

Regardless of what your weakness is, whether it be seafood or meats, make sure you get a glass of their house wine to pair with. The best thing about Zarzuela is that they will allow you a taste before they pour so you can be sure you're getting something you like. Trust me when I say, we've never had a bad wine here.

Our friends had an absolute ball and after 5 bottles of wine and a table filled with food, we finally rolled ourselves out the door, but not before the hearty handshakes, hugs and goodbyes until we are able to make our way up again.

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