The Basque country, which straddles France and Spain on the Atlantic coast, is a vortex of influences, all of which fuse to create one of the most unique and heralded cuisines in all of Europe. You have the Pyrenees on one side and the ocean on the other; you have French cooking over there and Spanish ingredients over here. Somehow, through some mystical European alchemy, it all works beautifully, and luckily for us, there are plenty of Basque enthusiasts and emigrants around here who can cook.
You’ll find some of them in the kitchen at Bask, the newest of several Basque-inspired eateries in the North Beach-Financial District borderlands.
The menu consists primarily of an encyclopedic list of tapas helpfully divided by type — cold or warm, sauteed or fried — and a few larger entrees to round things out. On Tapas Tuesdays, they throw another slew of small dishes onto the menu, making the total possible meal combinations a number so high it would make Nate Silver’s head explode.
Deciding what to order might seem daunting, but fret not — most of Bask’s compact earthenware dishes are overflowing with authentic rusticity and focused flavor, with the many highlights overshadowing the few missteps.
My favorite tapas leaned more toward sea than land. Squid cooked in its own ink, while not particularly elegant, contained an ocean of concentrated flavor in its silky, savory black sauce and required at least a loaf of bread on the side to soak it all up once the hunks of squid were gone.
The cod fritter held a deep well of flavor within its golden-fried exterior — a soft, saucy, salty center infused with just the right taste of fish, served with tangy, fresh tartar-esque sauce on the side made even brighter by a squeeze of citrus.
If you have the time to wait for it, the Paella Royale is a gala of flavors and textures, the best part being the socarrat, the caramelized crust lining the pan. Maybe my favorite bite of food at Bask has been a spoonful of scraped-up bomba rice topped with spicy chorizo and tender clam.
Like all of the food at Bask, it’s solidly traditional, but vibrant rather than stodgy. Service, even when stretched thin on a busy night, is always enthusiastic and eager to please. Just don’t expect fine dining-level perfection or cold-blooded efficiency here; there is definitely a slow, Old World bistro-style ambiance permeating this place.
Though I didn’t expect to find a great burger here, the Bask burger sings with flavor — beef and lamb cooked to a pink and juicy medium-rare, topped with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese — and the lightly crunchy fries on the side were so addictive we ordered seconds.
Some dishes may have missed the mark, but they were few and far between. The same lamb and beef combo that sang in the burger fell flat when stuffed inside sweet peppers, and I wasn’t crazy about the veal sweetbreads, which swam in a sauce that tasted overwhelmingly of black pepper.
The compact and functional wine list reinforces the casual, easygoing vibe of this place. I stuck with the Itsasmendi Txakolina, a workhorse white with a bright, fresh edge that complemented so many dishes. Itsasmendi means “sea” and “mountain”— like Basque country and the cuisine itself, the best of both worlds.
Location: 42 Columbus Ave. (near Jackson Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 392-2275, https://basksanfrancisco.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Price range: $6 to $27
Recommended dishes: Paella Royale ($26), Bask burger ($18), cod fritters ($9.50), squid ($13), beef tongue ($10.50)
Credit cards: All major