Two tapas restaurants in San Francisco’s East Bay tap into good food and fun. At both Sabio on Main in Pleasanton and Telefèric Barcelona in Walnut Creek, drinks rise in prominence with the food.
When you arrive at Sabio on Main for Sunday brunch, you are welcomed by the hostess—and the bartender who asks if you would like to customize your Bloody Mary or another cocktail.
This is no average Bloody Mary set -up. Executive Chef-Partner Francis S. Hogan believes in homemade-just-about-everything and the highest quality ingredients. Put that philosophy together with his culinary studies in Northern Spain, and you get pinxtos-like touches in the cocktails. Hogan’s skewer-of-the-day may hold his homemade beef and mango jerky, poached shrimp or a stack of pickled quail egg, Manchego cheese and premium Jamón Serrano ham.
“Our pinxtos are a fusion of the Spanish approach to food with California sensibilities. The pinxtos on the Bloody Mary cart aren’t exactly like Barcelona, but the concept of a small bite with an alcoholic drink is the same,” said Hogan.
Hogan worked as the opening executive chef at Bluestem in San Francisco. But he eschewed the commute and city bustle for his next venture. The restaurant’s name refers to Spanish King Alfonso X, known as El Sabio, the Wise One, who is credited for starting the tapas tradition. The full name of Sabio on Main harkens to the location in the picturesque heart of Pleasanton’s Main Street, the anchor for the 70,000 residents who live next to Livermore Valley wine country and the many visitors to the Tri-Valley.
Hogan likes to stay busy at the stove. “I’m cooking every night. I’m not carrying a clipboard and watching others do the work.” But he frequently ventures into the dining room to chat with guests. The menu is divided into “Snacks” such as the beef jerky or warmed olives; “Global Tapas” with jumbo Gulf shrimp a la plancha, Japanese friend chicken and more. Next come “Vegetables,” “Plates to Share” and cheeses, plus desserts of course, which include Hogan’s revolving version of creative donuts.
Often customers come back seeking to repeat their meals. But Hogan explains that his menu is often changing based on the seasons and his creative
preparations. During my first visit to Sabio, I savored grilled octopus with marble potato, Meyer lemon stuffed olives and Sweety Drop peppers. For the next meal I looked forward to this specialty, but Meyer lemons weren’t in season and the weather was cooler. This time Hogan served roasted octopus with ratatouille vegetables and fennel soubise. Sourced and live caught from Spain, the octopus was enhanced by the different cooking method and accompaniments.
My notes from the first visit said “Chef appreciates the small things.” Asparagus was in season along with the lemons, so Chef grilled and served them with pancetta vinaigrette. Another visit brought an equally satisfying beet salad with burrata, farro and pistachio.
After learning that Sabio was honored for its careful attention to wines by gaining a coveted Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 2016, I focused on the new beverage menu on my recent visit. Beyond exploring affordable but underappreciated wines from Spain’s Rioja and Priorat regions and Portugal, the chef’s other secret ingredient to the wine program’s success is sommelier Jason Montero.
Montero recommended an excellent match with the roasted octopus and caramelized cauliflower with sambal, lime, toasted garlic, and peanuts—Lagar Da Condesa, Valle Do Salnes Albariño. This complex, medium-bodied and refreshing white wine also paired well with confit chicken and kimchi fried rice with scallion, skillet egg and sesame.
For the seared Wagyu beef, Montero suggested Arrels de Clos Pissarra Garnatxa (garnache) from Montsant near Barcelona. Montero also has a keen sense for pairing local and California wines. Whenever lamb appears on the menu, he recommends Steven Kent Lineage Bordeaux blend from Livermore Valley. For the full food and drink experience from Montero, try the reasonably priced Chef’s Ten Course Tasting Menu. Or sample from the global cocktail list and snacks at the long bar.
Telefèric Barcelona in Walnut Creek is the latest outpost of the same-named restaurant in Barcelona which won the “Best Tapa in Barcelona” award in 2014. Walnut Creek is known as a shopping destination and an East Bay dining hot spot. Located about 30-minutes north of Sabio on the second floor of a popular corner dining venue in bustling Downtown Walnut Creek, Telefèric is named for the famous cable car linking Barcelona’s port to the Montjuïc hill. The main dining room sports a cable with a red, toy gondola rolling back and forth; the outdoor patio overlooks the street scene.
The owner’s son, Xavi Padrosa, has links to the history of modern Spanish cuisine. His mother, Soledad Urabayen, grew up in Pamplona in the Basque region of Northern Spain. When she opened the Barcelona restaurant, she helped popularize pinxtos, the famous Basque snack food in the city. His father is from Barcelona in the Catalonia where tapas were already a cultural staple.
Also using carts in a creative way, Telefèric riffs off dim sum cart service with pinxtos lined up with appealing colors and presentations in a cart rolled to the
table. The pinxto bites burst with authentic Spanish flavors. On a recent visit, I selected several pinxto skewers: Tomato salad with caramelized goat cheese, panko-crusted brie, and pork belly with olive and avocado, each mouthful bursting with flavor and texture.
Sangria is an easy choice for a cocktail, but which one? On Manager Albert Smiths’ recommendation, I wisely started with the Sangria Barceloneta with Catalan cava instead of wine, rosemary lemonade and prickly pear juice; the traditional red wine-based Sangria was sweeter and also refreshing. The Catalan GinTonic, a favorite drink in Barcelona, is made with gin, grapefruit juice with rosemary and flower garnishes. The wine list highlights Spanish and Portuguese wines with premium quality Telefèric-branded Spanish wines.
The “Cositas” or small things on the menu include fried, spiced Spanish corn nuts and Catalan smashed-tomato-and EVOO-topped bread. As for tapas, my friend proudly refrained from eating the entire bowl of las bravas, crispy potatoes. The gambas al ajillo, garlic prawns, are fresh and well-sauced. A special treat is the Spanish octopus, simply grilled. The award-winning foie gras dish is surprisingly light with many textural surprises: lightly grilled foie with roasted apple mouse, caramelized onion and cherry jam. If you can’t decide among the tapa, choose the “Kitchen Pick” option for two.
The main courses range from scallops to grilled hangar stead or a tomahawk steak if you are especially hungry. Paella parties often take place at Telefèric given the big pan presentation with fresh seafood, pork and chicken.
The restaurant is also open for “Brunchelona” and lunch with a wide selection from salads to Las Ramblas wrap or a La Bocqueria Panini with steak, plantain and Mahon cheese. For dessert, a crème brulée, Catalan style is excellent or the hot, fresh churros with chocolate dipping sauce.
For a soiree to Barcelona and Spain near San Francisco, venture across the Bay Bridge and over to highway 680 for a pinxtos and tapas at Sabio on Main or Telefèric.
FTC Disclaimer: This article was researched with support from the restaurants. Opinions expressed herein belong to the author.