Hearty fare, no pretension at Basque Cultural Center

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerThe stuffed quail

I’d like to think there are people who plot their weeks around dinner specials at the Basque Cultural Center. Certainly the clientele has an air of permanency, of dining patterns reaching back for decades. “Put down those chips, Murray, you know Thursday is fondue night!”

I’m teasing, but without malice. The Basque Cultural Center is a delight, a place where only the sourest scenester wouldn’t appreciate its warmth or lack of pretense.

Basque food has an upscale cachet in the Bay Area, with restaurants like Piperade imprinting a stamp of sophistication on the native cuisine. If you demand that kind of elegance, the Basque Cultural Center might not be your destination.

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One night, I awaited my dining companions in the capacious lobby, garishly decked out for the holidays like a 1950s sitcom set.

Perched in an overstuffed living room chair, I eavesdropped on a local florists’ meeting. One joker on the mic said: “My wife couldn’t make it tonight; looks like I’ve got my pick of girlfriends!” Loud, unrestrained guffaws followed.

Yes.

Places like the Basque Cultural Center, or Joe’s of Westlake, will always exert magnetic pull for me. They’re an antidote to San Francisco, bearing a certain innocence, a lack of cynicism or high self-regard.

The menu doesn’t rotate seasonally, or name-check the farm where your duck a l’orange was sourced. Lights blaze fluorescent, the waitstaff is natty in vests and bow ties, and house wines are all $5 a glass (a straw poll at my table deemed the merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay “drinkable”).

The food itself is competent, indistinct and hearty. There’s none of the twee inventiveness of say, Nouveau Basque restaurant Txoko; it didn’t transport me to soaring heights but it also never let me down.

Juicy escargots were prepared by the numbers, swimming in garlic and parsley butter. A mild pâté de campagne was earthy and well-spiced.

Meats were uniformly tender, most served with inoffensive tan gravies: oxtail stew; bacon, apple and cabbage-stuffed quail; roasted pork shoulder; and braised rabbit grand mere.

Even the cassoulet, white beans studded with pork sausage and duck confit, had a mildness that one might describe as “beige.”

Every entree came with soup, salad and sides that made me pine for a time when eating out was a treat for its own sake. I can’t remember the last time I was served unapologetic rice pilaf, potatoes au gratin, or a boiled veggie medley that blithely flouts seasonal sourcing.

Creamy spinach and potato soups, ladled from a giant tureen, were soothing. When we marveled at the pot’s enormity, our brassy server quipped, “What, you no had soup before?” and clapped my friend’s shoulder.

Salads clocked in somewhere between an iceberg wedge and a thoughtful greens mix, tossed in a creamy vinaigrette. And dinner was rounded out with a creamy gelato with ginger crisps, a sweet little trifle.

The nightly dinner special is a sizzler of a deal: two entrees, soup, salad and dessert for around $20. I love the idea of heading in each Sunday for my prime rib and braised lamb cheek supper.

“Your usual table, sir?” Soon enough, they’d remember my name, my preferred house wine. And every bowl of soup would be like my very first.

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