San Francisco chef Ryan Pollnow has spent his career working in some of the finest restaurants in the world, but when it came to opening his own restaurant, he found inspiration where he least expected it: the everyday tapas bars of Spain.
It’s been ten years since that discovery, but his eyes still light up talking about it. “It was 2006, and Spain was the place to be as far as fine dining,” he recalls. “I went there chasing the fine dining dream. As a stagiaire on borrowed money, I had very little I could spend, so I found myself in the pintxos bars of the Basque Country in San Sebastián, because that’s what I could afford. And I fell in love with the rustic, convivial vibe of a Spanish tapas restaurant.”
The simplicity of a plate of peak-season tomatoes rubbed against garlicky toast, or a plateful of sweet-savory cured ham—those were things that he couldn’t forget. So while he rose through the ranks of Bay Area restaurants, mastering menus dedicated to modern Californian or regional Italian cuisine, when Ryan had the chance to open a restaurant of his own, he turned to what he loved most.
Ryan’s restaurant, Aatxe, opened in San Francisco’s Upper Market neighborhood in the spring of last year. “No one tells you when you open a restaurant that you’re supposed to be able to pronounce the name,” he says, laughing. (For the record, the word is pronounced “ahh-CHAY.”) The word represents a bull in Basque mythology, he explains: “I really wanted something that captured the energy of a tapas restaurant, and also paid homage to the place where my inspiration was born, which was Basque country.”
Aatxe aims to highlight what’s best about Basque gastronomy, yet express it in a way that highlights the integrity of Northern California’s ingredients. For example, rather than serving classic conservas (oil-packed and tinned seafood and shellfish), the restaurant marinates fresh mussels, clams, octopus and other seafood for three to five days, then serves it at the table in the same signature tins. Bacalao—the Nordic cod that’s been harvested by Basque fishermen for centuries—is a staple of Basque cooking, but to make the most of Northern California’s resources, the restaurant salts and purges Monterey Bay black cod, then poaches the fish in olive oil.
In essence, it’s about letting fine products speak for themselves. Adds Ryan: “What I always tell anyone that enters—whether it’s a server, host, brand-new cook, or even a guest who wants to hear the philosophy of Aatxe—the most important thing is not the techniques happening in the kitchen. It’s the sourcing of the ingredients.”
Check out more of our day with the Aatxe crew, and see more about Aatxe and Ryan’s Spanish feast at williams-sonoma.com/aatxe.