Olea a hidden San Francisco treat

By: Patricia Unterman
Special to The Examiner
November 27, 2009

Quintessential secret: Olea restaurant’s chef and co-owner Gabriel Amaya serves delicious dishes using fresh ingredients found at the local farmers market. (Bret Putnam/Special to The Examiner)

SAN FRANCISOC — Olea, a tiny, 2-year-old restaurant hidden in plain sight on the corner of California and Larkin streets close to the end of the cable car line, makes me proud to be a San Franciscan.

In a partially subterranean space with a miniscule open kitchen and windows at sidewalk level, chef/co-owner Gabriel Amaya cooks a handful of dishes from his finds at the farmers market. He carts them back to a restaurant that is as personal and cozy as home, though much neater.

Whether his customers are visitors who happen in after a cable car ride down from Nob Hill, drawn in by the warm glow of the dining room — or neighbors who know and admire Amaya’s pure sensibility — he converts them all to seasonal eating.

He opens up the flavors of vegetables picked hours before, meats raised mindfully, impeccable fish caught sustainably. Clean and moist, his dishes are characterized by natural juice instead of sauce, and magical textures which he coaxes out with a light, sure hand.

This is the way Alice Waters taught us to shop, cook and eat.

But Amaya does it his own way. Since he works alone, he recognizes that he has to keep his menu short and do-able. His unique form developed from function.

His current salad ($8.50), curly wisps of pale green frisee dotted with jewels — pomegranate seeds, persimmon slices, a tiny dice of ricotta salata — gets a lively pomegranate vinaigrette.

His other starter, a cracker-crisp, baked-to-order flatbread ($9.25), fragrant with new olive oil underscored with sea salt, is divine by itself, or can be layered with accompaniments from a separate bowl: a marmalade of braised endive and spinach subtly spiced with chile flakes; fresh Bellwether Farm ricotta; and slices of roasted bosc pear.

This leaves plenty of room for a pink, juicy duck breast ($19.50) with caramelized, crackling skin, sliced atop basmati rice scented with Indian spices and dotted with little cubes of butternut squash. Brown-edged brussels sprouts snuggle right into it all. The duck breast has the texture of velvet.

A precisely cooked medium-rare Niman bavette steak ($19.50), charred on the outside and sliced over creamy polenta, comes with the most luscious romano beans braised in tomato sauce with Parmesan and olive oil. All the parts on the plate play off each other.

Amaya can even make a vegan plate of quinoa ($13.50) sing. The Peruvian grain is tossed with baby broccoli, shiitakes, butter, sesame seeds and walnuts. Each bite is nutty and interesting with differentiated textures and flavors, like eating a great pasta. I want to have this again.

The wine list, like the menu, is short and sweet, leaning towards full-bodied whites and balanced reds that complete the food. I particularly liked a vivacious Fiddlehead sauvignon blanc ($11 for a glass) and a berryish, organic 100 percent tempranillo ($10.50 for a glass) from Spain.

Because you’ve eaten so cleanly, a few bites of rich dessert ($8.50) such as a dark chocolate pot de crème, made extra exciting with sea salt and amarena cherries, sends you off into the night utterly satisfied.

As you walk up a few stairs from the dining room onto California Street, you feel the low rumble of moving cable under your feet. Along with Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge, the secret Olea delivers a quintessential San Francisco experience.

Olea

Location: 1494 California St. (at Larkin Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 202-8521; www.oleasf.com
Hours: 6 to 9:30 p.m. ­Tuesdays-T­hursdays, until 10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays for dinner; 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays for brunch
Price range: $8.50 to $19.50
Recommended dishes: Flatbread, frisee salad with persimmons; duck breast, bavette steak, quinoa with vegetables; dark chocolate pot de crème
Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa
Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the just released second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.