When Bridget Batson took over the kitchen at Gitane, the Iberian restaurant tucked away in a downtown alley off Bush street, I had to find her.
Batson, who spent 10 years at Hawthorne Lane and then at Two with David Gingrass, is a consummate professional. The rhythms and rituals that make restaurants run smoothly are in her bones. She’s been working in them since she was 15.
What I didn’t know is that Batson is an inspired Spanish cook, adept at layering Catalan and Basque flavors, weaving in the soulfulness of Portugal, the scents of Morocco and a soupcon of French Mediterranean. Heading her own kitchen has released a wellspring of creativity.
Her dishes at Gitane are complex and polished yet earthy; frankly, this is some of the most exciting and luscious food in town.
The very first thing I tasted, calamares ($12) from the wood-fired oven, knocked me over; it’s a mini-paella of tender squid, stuffed with a smooth, buttery forcemeat of bacon, in a haunting, tart green sauce textured with ground almonds.
Piquillos ($9) also emerges from the wood oven, a cazuela of sweet, red Spanish peppers filled with ground veal and nestled into a sofrito, a long cooked, vegetable-enriched sauce scented with celery leaves.
Another stuffed dish, caille ($22), a roasted quail plump with spicy chorizo, split lengthwise and served on a crisp potato gallete smothered in a ragout of corn, also explores the very nature of succulence and texture. Batson’s cooking is all about complexity and depth, not fussiness and confusion.
The intriguing menu, small in both physical size and number of choices, delivers plenty of treats, starting with appetizers.
In sardinas ($12), boned, splayed, fried sardines in a crisp semolina coating are laid over a cubed salad and a bright, creamy, verjus creme fraiche dressing.
A mini-bastilla ($12), a dome of crackling filo pastry with a juicy mousse of chicken, fragrant with Moroccan spices inside, is delightful.
In ovo frito ($12), the yolk of deep-fried, crumb crusted Eatwell Farm egg runs onto a caesar-like salad of little gem lettuces, shaved manchego cheese and Spanish anchovies.
Her unique sensibility extends to desserts like plum empanadas ($7), warm, flaky, plum-filled crescents, with a side parfait of marcona almond ice cream and plum sorbet.
She creates these wonders in a tiny kitchen hidden in a corner of a small, multistory brick building decorated with gigantic necklace chandeliers, a flea market aisle of couches, tables, chairs and oversized lamps, and an antiqued, mirrored disappearing ceiling.
Drinkers at the downstairs bar, always full on my visits, sip before two dramatic, Caravaggio-esque tapestries. Those without reservations sit outdoors, European-style, under an awning.
Gitane is meant to be a raffish place, Dali-esque in mood, but sophisticated and old world in spirit. Batson’s cooking nails its role it in this theatrical setting.
With a user-friendly wine list heavy with Spanish and Portuguese bottles, a big collection of sherries, madeiras and sweet wines curated to go with desserts and a full bar, patrons can settle in for an evening.
Intelligent, personable service makes everyone feel right at home. But it’s Bridget Batson’s cooking that sends Gitane over the top. This eccentric, romantic place found a poet for its kitchen.
Patricia Unterman is the author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 6 Claude Lane, San Francisco
Contact: (415) 788-6686; www.gitanerestaurant.com
Hours: 5:30 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 5:30 p.m. to midnight Thursdays-Saturdays
Price range: $9 to $26
Recommended dishes: Fried sardines, stuffed quail, calamares, stuffed piquillo peppers, sole with raisin coulis and chard, grilled yellow tail with peas and harissa vinaigrette, black plum empanadas
Credit cards: All major