Clean Flavors in the Spotlight
560 Divisadero St. (at Hayes), San Francisco
North of the Panhandle
Open daily for dinner
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
Nopa is a restaurant that I’ve been meaning to try for a long time, but never could get myself out to that area of the city (which the restaurant has staked out to be North of the Panhandle but I always thought was more the Western Addition). But I’ve always had hints of Nopa’s grandeur at food events, where I got some teaser tasting of the talents of Chef Laurence Jossel, who seems to excel in using fresh, seasonal ingredients in simple but tasty dishes.
Nopa was white-hot when it opened in 2006, and some say it is still going strong attracting the crowds. For awhile it was the destination restaurant in the hood, but now it’s spawned an equally popular little sister (the Mexican restaurant Nopalito), and Bar Crudo has recently opened up a couple of blocks away.
When I finally took the time to travel out to check out Nopa, I got there early so I could grab a stool at the back counter that faces the open kitchen. Walk-ins are seated at the bar or at an adjacent communal table, but I’d heard that the fun is at the four-stool counter facing the wood-fire oven.
Side note: The bar is bustling in the early evenings because Nopa offers some of the best drinks in town, served up by some of the more experienced bartenders in the city.
Because of the emphasis on seasonal ingredients, the menu changes almost daily. It’s also not as extensive as I imagined, although it offered a nice variety of appetizers. A nice indicator of my meal to come was the amuse bouche sent out by the kitchen. I was surprised to receive an amuse at a casual restaurant. These are typically reserved for more fine-dining establishments, but who am I to complain? What I got was a mini croistini topped with a mini Greek salad, with ingredients like mini diced cucumbers, olives and feta cheese. But it was dressed in a bright lemon vinaigrette that was bright and refreshing, waking up my palate like how an amuse should behave.
After that promising start, I ordered the Grilled Monterey Sardines ($10), which was served simply dressed with some olive oil and topped off with cherry tomatoes confit. From the first bite I could taste the freshness of the sardines, and the cherry tomatoes were bursting with summer flavors. As a nice touch of contrast, Chef Jossel adds flash-fried spiced chickpeas that are entertaining to bite into for their airy crunchiness. The overall dish was simple but elegant.
I also couldn’t pass up ordering the Sweet Corn Soup ($8) just because I love summer corn. The simple corn soup was topped with a swirl of harissa, a North African/Middle Eastern spice. I blended the spice with the rest of my soup, turning it into a pinkish hue and adding a splendid back heat to the sweet corn.
For my entrée, I ordered the special of the night, which was an Osso Bucco ($25) made from pork instead of the traditional veal shanks. The braised pork was tender and juicy that easily pulled away from the center bone. The dish was distinguished by an accompanying aioli that tasted similar to the harissa but I couldn’t say for sure what it was. There was a slight tang like tomato but it was spicy with a Middle Eastern flavor. Whatever it was, it nicely complemented the dish, adding just a slightly different twist. (A reader pointed out that it wasn't an aioli but a romesco sauce.) The cranberry beans and spinach served with the dish were also nicely prepared (and who knew cranberry beans were so big?).
I ended my evening with the Sour Cherry Clafoutis ($8), which is a French cake that reminds me a lot of this wonderful warm pineapple cake I had in Vietnam. Nopa’s version was filled with cherries that weren’t that sour. I actually wanted to have more of the cherry flavor because the cake tasted mostly of vanilla. While it was nice, I felt it could have been served a bit more warm and the sauce on the plate could have been served a bit more cold. So maybe it was just an off night for dessert?
While the counter was a fun place to people watch (although I thought the chef felt like he was an animal at the zoo being watched), the rest of the restaurant looks like a lively place to dine no matter where you are—whether the main dining area downstairs or the cool mezzanine that gives a birds-eye view of all the action.
Overall, I left Nopa feeling rewarded for making the journey out to this lonely part of town. The service was friendly and paced just right so you feel welcomed and not rushed, and the food is spot on with clean flavors and just a few tiny tweaks of surprise.
Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (Strong and steady)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
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Friday, August 07, 2009
Clean Flavors in the Spotlight