B-44: Authentic Catalan bistro in the heart of S.F.

For eight years now, ever since B-44 opened, I have dropped in for tapas and paella, and always come away marveling at the lively, delicious food, the lush, affordable Spanish wines and the easygoing, professional service.

Such consistency and vibrancy come not only from chef/owner Daniel Olivella’s talent behind the stove, but from an intuitive understanding of how a restaurant works. Going to B-44 is effortless and fun, yet always a culinary adventure. The customer feels the high level of personal commitment.

Catalan-born Olivella has cookingin his blood. He also happens to be a natural at running a restaurant. He grew up in his family’s restaurant in the Spanish wine country at Vilafranca del Penedes. At 17, he started cooking at La Paella, his uncle’s restaurant in Chicago, to pay his way through music conservatory. Ten years later, he put the Thirsty Bear, San Francisco’s first major tapas bar, on the culinary map as opening chef. Then he launched his own place, B-44.

About six months ago, I led a food media group, which included the French publisher of the new San Francisco Michelin Guide, to B-44. We walked in cold and the restaurant did not let me down. We sat at a long table along a banquette and ate and drank all night. The family-style service suited our large group.

When I returned a couple of weeks ago with a party of six, the experience was equally fun and effortless.

We always start with serrano ham on toasts layered with creamy salt cod mayonnaise and sweet piquillo peppers ($8.50). Then we move on to a warm salad of tender, sliced octopus and fingerling potatoes ($10) dressed in distinctive arbequina olive oil.

Daily tapas feature seasonal produce, like the luscious ragout of fresh fava beans, morcilla (blood sausage) and tomatoes ($9). Asparagus wrapped in serrano ham and grilled were drizzled with a vinaigrette made with 25-year-old sherry vinegar ($11).

Little piquillo peppers, the taste of Spain, held Dungeness crab meat ($10). Sweet and sour local sardines ($9) got a juicy little fennel-and-red onion salad.

With these under our belts, we still had plenty of room for B-44’s vivacious paellas served in the shallow cast iron pans in which they were cooked. You can’t miss with the signature B-44 paella ($20), plump, flavor-packed grains of Spanish rice topped with chorizo, shellfish and chicken. Our waiter steered us to paella cazadora ($19), hunter’s paella, with chicken, rabbit, pancetta and mushrooms — no seafood — and it was spectacular, meaty, smoky and evocative.

My personal favorites are the glistening black paellas made with squid ink and angel hair noodles called fideos. Fideua negra ($20) with shrimp and squid has a haunting, musky, oceanic flavor smoothed by a drizzle of allioli, creamy garlic mayonnaise.

Olivella chooses the wines himself. Bottles from Monsant, a wine-growing region in Catalonia where he grew up, go particularly well with his food. Try the Clos dels Codols, a blend that features old vine grenache ($9/$39).

The modern, Barcelona-style, high-tech design with cement floors, wood and metal furniture and lots of hard surfaces makes for a noisy dining room, but not unbearably so.

Once the food and wine start flowing, you turn into a Spaniard and want to eat and drink all night.

B-44

Location: 44 Belden Lane, San Francisco

Contact: (415) 986-6287, www.b44sf.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 10:30 p.m. Friday; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Price range: Appetizers $8.50 to $11; paellas and main courses $18 to $24

Recommended dishes: Paella cazadora, fideua negre, B-44 paella, local sardines, jamon serrano toasts, fava beans with morcilla, baby squid stuffed with sausage, piquillo peppers stuffed with crab

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner’s Club

Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman’s San Francisco Food Lover’s Pocket Guide is available at bookstores now. Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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