Friday, August 07, 2009

Dish on Dining: Nopa

Clean Flavors in the Spotlight
560 Divisadero St. (at Hayes), San Francisco
North of the Panhandle
PH: 415.864.8643
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 entrĂ©e, 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

Nopa on Urbanspoon

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Foreign Cinema: “Now Playing: An Innovative Brunch Matinee”
Bar Tartine: “More Than Baked Goods at this Neighborhood Bistro”


foodhoe said...

single guy, I've been meaning to check nopa out for the longest time too! the grilled sardines are beckoning...

Kim said...

Next time, give me a ring. I'm walking distance from NOPA. Last time I was there, I ran into Sean Penn.

locicero said...

I recently researched and baked a Clafoutis myself. It's a country dessert from the Limosine region of France, usually made with cherries or othe "pit fruits". The "cake" itself is supposed to be pretty vanilla in order to let the fruit flavor show through. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking says the cake should be almost like a Flan in consistency. And it should be served right out of the oven.

I'll be in this neighborhood this weekend. I'll have to check it out.

Anonymous said...

There's no such thing as "spinach romesco". It's just spinach. The little dollop of red stuff is the romesco sauce, as Spanish sauce made with almonds, tomatoes, garlic, bread, chiles, and other things.

Hungry Dog said...

I too have been meaning to check out Nopa--I love Nopalito around the corner. Sounds like it's worth a visit, minus dessert.

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, I wish I knew then I would have asked you to trek out there with me! :)

Kim, I wish I knew then I would have called you for a drink at the bar! :)

Locicero, the clafoutis at Nopa didn't really have a flan-like texture, more cake like. I still dream of the one I had in Vietnam.

Anonymous, thanks for the correction! In my scribbled notes from dinner, I must have left out the comma in between spinach and romesco when I was discretely trying to capture the discription from the menu. But yes, the romesco sauce was great and the description you listed totally sounded like what I ate and enjoyed!

Hungry Dog, it is worth checking out. Just know that the portion sizes might be small. And I wouldn't say to give up on dessert. There might be other items on the menu to check out, I just wasn't blown away by the clafoutis.

Carolyn Jung said...

Single Guy Chef, have you ever had the burger at Nopa? My hubby is dying to try it ever since Nate Appleman told us that it's at the top of his list for great restaurant-style burgers.

Single Guy Ben said...

Carolyn, I didn't try the burger although I did hear it is good. (I also heard Spruce has a good burger too.) Might have to go back and try it! (Although it sounds better for lunch but NOPA is not open for lunch.)

David K. and Ann C. said...

The burger is awesome. I'm surprised you didn't get the pork chop -- it's one of their signature dishes. -- David

Single Guy Ben said...

David, I did drool over the pork chop, but since I was ordering two starters (the sardines and soup) I thought it would be better to have a smaller entree since I wanted to save room with dessert. My waitress said the osso bucco, which was so good, was less than the pork chop.

A said...

it's on my list to try since forever. I'll get there one day.

How did u get there- walk or take a bus? is it walkable?

Single Guy Ben said...

A, I caught the 71 Haight bus and got off at Divisadero and Haight. From there it was only a three or four block walk. Pretty easy as it turns out, so no excuses! :)

saudade said...

One of my husband's favorite burgers is at NOPA. And everything sardine is a must-order.

We always stop in before a show at the Independent.