For serious gourmands like me, the prospect of eating at Laiola, the extraordinary new tapas bar in the Marina, can be scary. Located in the smallish former space of an Asian noodle bar (previously O Sole Mio for those old enough to remember), Laiola only seats at a shiny copper bar or at a handful of high tables with stools, and these places cannot be reserved. Yet, because chef Mark Denham’s cooking is so spot-on delectable, I am willing to wait my turn and scale the furniture.
One bite of Laiola’s tomatoes on toast, otherwise known as “tomaquet” ($10), made me stop grousing. Sweet, juicy, multi-colored slices top warm, soft, white toast rubbed with garlic and splashed with good olive oil. The tomato juices lubriciously soak into the bread. You get two big perfectly proportioned toasts — and if there weren’t so many other treasures — I’d make a meal of these (especially now during the climax of tomato season) with a glass of aromatic verdejo from Marques di Riscal ($10).
No need to mourn the passing of tomatoes so long as perennial dishes are available like chickpea croquetas ($7), golden-fried logs of cheese-enriched chickpea porridge with creamy interiors and delicate cornmeal-coated crusts. Olive oil goes into the fryer, making deep-fried foods extra tasty, like whole local anchovies ($9) with excitingly crispy heads, tails and bones. Patatas bravas ($7), wedges of small new-crop potatoes, are remarkably tender inside and crunchy outside, like dream french fries.
Tiny, juicy lamb meatballs ($9) with the flavor of merguez sausages, are luscious with cumin-scented yogurt.
On one night, tissue-thin slices of house-made pork headcheese ($8), a jellied terrine, was slathered with piquant salsa verde; on another, translucent slices of raw Pacific halibut ($13) in the gentlest marinade of olive oil and lemon were topped with shaved celery, red onions, radishes and chopped egg. Identical mouthfeel, different flavors. I loved both of them.
In addition to headcheese, Denham also puts uphis own cured meats and sausages, for those in the mood.
The four large plates are worth exploring, especially the rare slices of Watson Farms leg of lamb in savory natural juice with lovely sweet peas and pea shoots ($21). Set in the middle of the small tables like all the other dishes, the portion is easily shared.
Wines by the glass actually come in little carafes that hold a third of a bottle, so they can be shared, too. This arrangement works very nicely and justifies the $10 starting price on wines. Two can split little carafes of white and red from the intriguing all Spanish list to get just the right amount to accompany a meal.</p>
The four desserts ($7) match the sensibility of the rest of the menu, like a little piece of local cheese paired with local honey and farmers’ market fruit; or sparkling strawberry ice with frozen yogurt. Though I am not a chocolate-dessert fan, I am wild about one here, a mound of intense, velvety chocolate pudding sprinkled with sea salt and olive oil to be spread on thin toasts. It’s thrilling.
Laiola delivers a high-end experience in a casual format. The formula works. I’ll wait in line; I’ll eat at the bar; I’ll come early; I’ll pay the not-insignificant check. Laiola is worth it.
Location: 2031 Chestnut St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 346-5641, www.laiola.com
Hours: 6 to 10:30 p.m. nightly
Price range: $3 to $13 for tapas; $19 to $22 for big dishes
Recommended dishes: Heirloom tomaquet; chickpea croquetas, lamb meatballs, fried anchovies, esqueixada of halibut; patatas bravas, Watson Farm lamb with peas, pan con chocolate
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.