I first heard about Zarzuela when I saw my co-worker’s husband review it on Check, Please! Bay Area. It really looked like a quaint restaurant that served some traditional Spanish food, so I immediately added it to the list of restaurants to try, but Pdho decided to surprise me by taking me there to celebrate our 1 year anniversary.
The restaurant is located on a prime corner in Russian Hill and offers an open view of the cable car that goes along Hyde St. When we got there, Pdho and I realized that we had run past the restaurant several times before on our Nike runs, but we had never noticed it. We got there about 5:45pm and the restaurant was already packed with people. Since they don’t take reservations, we ended up waiting almost an hour before we were seated. Boy, were we hungry!
The restaurant is not very big inside, although I think there may be additional seating in the back. It tries to give the feel of a restaurant that you might find in Spain with its bull fighter posters and paintings of Don Quixote decorating the walls.
Between Pdho’s love of Spanish food and my eyes always being hungrier than my time, we probably would have ordered the entire menu. In spite of our extreme hunger, we tried to control how much we ordered, but the waiter still said, “you have a tremendous amount of food, but you’ll be fine!” Haha!
Pdho insisted on the gazpacho, but considering how cold it was outside, I wasn’t totally excited about that idea. It tasted quite refreshing. The finely puréed tomato soup was mixed with garlic and sour cream. The soup was smooth and kind of creamy without being heavy, and the bits of croutons and green bell peppers added some nice crunch.
The Crab Bisque was my pick and provided a contrasting flavor profile to the gazpacho. It was hot, creamy, and infused with rich seafood flavor. There were little bits of crab meat, but I could have used a little more. Although it was creamier than the gazpacho, it really wasn’t heavy at all.
The Serrano Jamon was thinly sliced and served with pieces of toast that was spread with a tomato mixture of some sort. The ham tasted robustly meaty and smokey compared to the more cured taste of prosciutto. It was a solid start after the two soups.
The Grilled Calamari was fantastic. It was extremely tender and perfectly grilled with a slightly charred taste. I’m not totally sure what the white sauce was, but it was kind of buttery and added a different dimension to the calamari.
The dates and peppers were on special that evening, so we decided to order them both. The dates were filled with almonds, wrapped in pancetta, and grilled. There was a sweet sauce coating that gave the dates a caramelization that contrasted with the savoriness of the pancetta. I wasn’t a big fan of the dates, because the inside was an odd tasting mix of crunchy almonds with applesauce-like date filling.
I definitely liked the roasted Shiso Peppers much better. I like the pure taste of these peppers and how flavorful they taste with just a healthy sprinkling of salt and pepper.
The shrimps were on the smaller side and numbered no more than 10 or 12. They were cooked in butter and herbs, but it was the sweetness of the cooked garlic slices that really enhanced their flavor. This was a very solid dish.
I think the day boat scallops dish was probably the weakest of the evening. There were 4 pan-fried pieces which were really 4 halves of 2 larger scallops, but the real disappointment was how bland they tasted. There wasn’t any discernible hint of scallop at all, and it was the Romesco sauce which added something but it still lacked some kick.
These were by far the fattest, juiciest mussels I have ever had. There were just over a dozen mussels which were served in an herby rich saffron-scented, tomato-flavored broth. It was distinctly Spanish.
The first bite of the Paella a la Valenciana fell a little bit flat, but I realized that once you mixed all the rice and seafood up a bit, the real essence of the seafood and saffron started to come through. The seafood was plentiful and only slightly overcooked, but it wasn’t criminal. The best part was the crunchy texture of the rice covering the hot cast-iron skillet.
I thought the flan tasted fine, but I really was beyond full at this point. It was rich, creamy and not too sweet.
In spite of the painfully long wait, it turned out to be a really wonderful meal. There was plenty of food. In fact, we barely put a dent in the paella so we ended up having more than enough food leftover for another meal. The food tasted good for the most part. It didn’t knock my socks off, but the rustic feel and intimate ambiance kind of added another dimension to the food which made the meal all the more enjoyable. The prices were actually quite reasonable which I don’t always say too often about good non-Asian food in San Francisco. Also, our waiter was one of the friendliest I’ve ever had in the sense that he seemed so sincere with each “You’re welcome” and “It’s my pleasure” he uttered. It was quite enjoyable and I look forward to coming back and trying the many other dishes on the menu.
2000 Hyde St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
PAFO Ratings for Zarzuela:
Ambiance 3½ stars
Food 3½ stars
Overall rating 4 stars