Japanese Pub Blends Traditional with Modern
2491 Mission St. (at 21st), San Francisco
Open Sun.–Thu., 6 p.m.–midnight (closed Tuesdays); Fri.–Sat., 6 p.m.–2 a.m., weekend brunch, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
The logo for the Japanese izakaya (or gastropub) Nombe in the Mission is a caricature of a Japanese guy who looks like the guy in those Japanese films where he’d be totally drunk at the village bar until a gang arrives in town and then he’d whip out some sick karate moves.
There weren’t any flying kicks happening when I recently visited Nombe (pronounced “nom-bay” and translated to mean drunkard), but there were definitely a lot of liquor and savory bites to keep you wanting more.
This lounge-like izakaya has been generating much buzz since it opened last November, proving that Mission hipsters like a good bowl of ramen along with their burritos. (In fact, the success of Nombe may be feeding the rumor that the people behind Namu across town are looking at opening an izakaya in the Mission as well.)
Walking into Nombe, it looks like any mom-and-pop Japanese restaurant with the sake bottles, paper lamps and folded decorative panels. But the pink glow of the Christmas lights along one wall and the pulsing rock music says otherwise. The contrasting tone is reflected in the partners — husband-and-wife Gil Payne and Mari Takahashi (formerly of Sozai) and their Caucasian executive chef Nick Balla (formerly of O Izakaya in Japantown).
My friend Ken joined me for an early dinner last week. Typically in a small-plate situation, we’d share a few dishes. But because Ken doesn’t eat meat and I was dying to try a few meat options, we went our separately ways. The menu is broken into house plates (these are typically more expensive), agemono (fried stuff that I avoided but Ken ordered from), and yakimono (grilled skewers).
Because an izakaya is typically a place where people gather to eat, drink and talk, there’s no real defined courses. So the food comes when they’re ready. Here are our dishes in the order that they came out.
First up was Ken’s order of White Shrimp Tempura “el Diablo” ($13), which was presented covered with what looked like parsley and kombu. Ken also ordered a glass of Sapporo beer and a bowl of miso soup with mushrooms ($4).
He thought the tempura batter was nicely prepared and fried, but he was thrown by the large shrimp still with the head on. I told him he should snap the head off and suck on it, but he passed on that suggestion. He enjoyed the miso soup, which even I could smell the flavor of from my side of the table.
Next came my Tsukune with egg ($6), which our helpful waitress (she patiently explained a lot of stuff on the menu) says is a traditional Japanese dish of ground chicken served with a small bowl of soft-cooked egg used as a dip. The tsukune looked almost like a sausage on the skewer. When eating it, it was savory and delightful, with the filling not very dense and mixed with what seemed like ground chicken and vegetables. It also looked pretty with the light dusting of what looked like red pepper flakes.
I can see how the tsukune is perfect for an izakaya because the savory elements made me want to drink a beer or sake. The egg was beautiful cooked, almost like custard, and sticking my tsukune into it provided a nice glaze but I didn’t feel it necessarily added more flavor. Still, this was a fun experience and I could have eaten another order.
But next came my Porkbelly ($13) with sake stewed onions and shoyu tamago. Nombe has two types of pork belly on the menu: 1) the plate I ordered that was slow-cooked or 2) on a skewer that’s deep-fried until crispy (you can see why I ordered the plate).
The pork belly was tender and even the fat held together like a slab of butter as opposed to a gel. The tender onions provided a nice contrast, but what was really fun was smearing a bit of the sweet hot mustard that was dabbed by the chef on the side of my plate as a condiment. It gave the dish a nice kick.
The two eggs (the tamago), unfortunately was not my favorite part of the dish. The egg white was so rubbery that I didn’t finish it.
Ken got the house plate of Black Cod ($13), a tiny piece of fish served on a bowl of spinach, fennel and leek braised with miso. I tried a bit of his fish and it was very tender, and Ken said the combination of vegetables with miso was like an orchestra of flavors in his mouth (me thinks he’s trying to show me up as the food critic).
Next came my order of Ciogga Beets ($6), which was a special for the night. The beets came in a cute square container topped with ginger, pickled cucumber and greens. On the bottom was a base of sour cream, which provided a silky texture to the already silky beets.
At this point, I couldn’t decide if I wanted more or if I was done. (There were lots of interesting things like chicken gizzards and beef heart still to try.) I finally ended up just getting the umeboshi onigiri (rice ball made with plum paste), $6. The warm rice was wrapped with a piece of shiso leaf and then nori (dried seaweed). As a kid, I’d always like to eat this type of musubi with the ume (the plum), but I’d never had it with the herbal taste of the shiso, which was an elegant touch. The plate came with an extra dollop of umeboshi if you like it extra sour.
Ken went for a traditional Japanese dessert, which was the mochi cake (or sticky rice cake, for $6). Nombe’s version was made with almond and yogurt and covered with a warm “meadowfoam” honey. I tried a bit and it reminded me of the Thai sticky rice desserts, although the mochi was more dense since the rice is pounded into a slab.
Overall, I found Chef Balla’s dishes to be authentic in flavor but exciting in execution. I would say, however, that because of the price point and small portions, you could end up paying a lot if you’re trying to piece together a dinner. This is definitely a high-end izakaya.
The special menu does sometimes include more sizeable offerings. For example, the night we were there Nombe was offering an “okazu feast,” which was a whole meal in one for $35. It included pork shoulder roast with chicarrones, pickled pig’s ear, wild nori rice and a variety of side dishes.
I knew if I ordered this feast I wouldn’t be able to try anything else. But I was curious about their ramen, which is why I returned over the weekend to try their weekend brunch.
The brunch menu features a Japanese breakfast (kind of an assortment of dishes like a bento box) and some popular items from the dinner menu. I went with the Red Curry Ramen with Grilled Chicken, a deal at $10 and a bit more with a pint of Sapporo beer ($13).
Side note: For brunch there are also some interesting cocktails like mimosa and sake, but I actually went with the lavender oolong iced tea ($4), which was refreshing and had just the slightest wiff of lavender.
For the ramen, I felt the noodles were really thin and a bit clumpy. But the broth was an interesting mixture of tastes. You get the slight spicy kick of the red curry that was then offset by the sourness of lime. The lime actually helped to cut the richness of the curry, and the overall flavors made me think of Thailand. The bowl also included baby shiitake mushrooms, corn, bean sprouts and mizuno.
Nombe is a place where I want to hangout all the time, whether it’s for drinks and bites with friends or a late-night gathering. (The restaurant opens a window to the street on the weekends late at night to serve ramen and other small bites.) It’s the kind of place that if you don’t watch yourself, you’d be a drunk in no time. But in a good way.
Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Savory Bar Bites)
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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Monday, June 21, 2010
Japanese Pub Blends Traditional with Modern