"Paella!"

This is the refrain you hear from the kitchen line at Bellota, every time the SoMa restaurant's signature dish is ready in the window.


If it's your first time at the new Spanish eatery (the sixth in the Absinthe Group empire, which includes North Beach prohibition-inspired cocktail bar, Comstock Saloon, and Hayes Valley creole spot, Boxing Room), the chorus, led by chef Ryan McIlwraith, formerly of Coqueta, creates a certain amount anticipation: Could that be my paella?


BELLOTA: A MEMORABLE MEAL IN THREE ACTS


Beware the temptations of the snack cart.Kelly Puleio

Act One: Know no limitations, only options.

As soon as you slide into one of the oversize booths or sidle up to the chef's counter, the snack cart comes around, with its irresistible bounty of cheese cubes marinated in olive oil and herbs, spiced marcona almonds, and gilda pincho (skewers of anchovy and olive). You order a little of everything to graze upon while you mull over the rest of the menu. Judging by the way you impale your toothpick into another, and another, and yet another cheese cube like you're ravaging the samples at Whole Foods or Costco, ordering the Queso del Dia may have been an amateur misstep.


Next up is the Bellota, the restaurant's namesake. This jamón ibérico, sliced to order (you can see the imported legs of ham hanging in a large showcase), is you, yes you, in cured-ham form—salty with a hint of sweetness (in the case of the Bellota, the flavor profile is the result of the free-range Iberian pigs' acorn diet). The accompaniment of rustic toast and a simple tomato sauce balances the richness of the meat.


A deep bowl of bravas (apparently a favorite of Monsieur Benjamin chef Jason Berthold) comes with two sauces, a chipotle salsa and smoky aioli, and once again you find yourself spearing cubes, this time of the golden-fried potato variety, without an iota self control.


The Yelp mob had mostly good things to say about the croquetas, clam and sea urchin fritters that come out of the fryer piping hot and sprinkled with seaweed powder. Breaking through the crunchy exterior to the unctuous interior ranks high on the textural-satisfaction index, between half-melted Fudgesicles and impossibly squishy mochi.


How much is that Bellota in the window?Kelly Puleio

Intermission: One notch looser on the belt.

During this brief lull, you admire the soaring space, a historic industrial warehouse attached to the Airbnb building. The design is California-Moorish: Think native bay laurel wood counters and tabletops, coastal-blue leather upholstery, Moorish pendant lights, and geo-whimsical stencil work on the concrete columns. A large open kitchen is designed to be the centerpiece of the restaurant, making the cooks part of the dining room. Lastly, the lights are low and the vibe is festive, partly due to residual mirth from the cocktail-fueled celebrations that started during the tapas hour—aka tapear, 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.—when sangria is just $5 a glass.


For maximum paella enjoyment, go easy on the apps.Kelly Puleio

Act Two: The paella has landed.

You could have tapped out after Act One, but when you placed your order, the waiter mentioned that Chef Ryan's conceptualized this restaurant as a "rice house," which you translated as, "You're a fool not to try the paella." The Dividida, a duo of paellas, is served in a custom 12-inch pan. The Fideua (rice, noodles, gulf shrimp, scallops, and squid ink) was much more interesting than the Pluma (pork shoulder, jamon iberico, saffron, and squash), but then again seafood tends to win over palates with its briny-sweet complexity. Combined with the inky coloring of the rice, the Fideua is most dramatic of all the paella offerings. Although the Pluma failed to impress you in the moment, it made a delicious lunch the next day, as dishes made with pork so often do.


Act Three: Bedtime rituals.

By now, all you want to do is put on some pajamas with a stretched-out elastic waist and flop into bed for a night of heavy-duty digestion and sound sleep. But you know your palate won't rest without dessert. The lightest possible option is the queso fresco semifreddo, which has that melty texture you find so appealing (see comment about Fudgesicles above), juxtaposed with crunchy almond turron. Fresh strawberries thwart the richness of the queso fresco. Relishing such a deft balance among flavors and textures, you find yourself in all-too-familiar territory: Going in for bite after bite, willpower be damned, again.


The End.


// Bellota: 888 Brannan St #110 (SoMa), bellotasf.com