Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Contigo in San Francisco’s Noe Valley

A Neighborhood Gem with Catalan Flavors
1320 Castro St. (near 24th), San Francisco
Noe Valley
PH: 415.285.0250
Dinner Tue.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.; Sun., 5:30–9:30 p.m. Closed Monday
Reservations accepted, MasterCard/Visa only (no American Express)
$1.50 Healthy SF surcharge added per person

Despite the recession, there are tons of restaurants opening around the Bay Area this month. But recently I felt the need to catch up with one notable opening that’s now nearly 17 months old.

Contigo, a tapas bar in the family-oriented Noe Valley neighborhood, is the brainchild of Chef Brett Emerson and partner Elan Drucker. While the idea of small plates were all the rage a few years ago, the buzz for Contigo was mostly generated by Emerson’s blog detailing his road to creating his own restaurant. The blog, In Praise of Sardines, has understandably ceased to continue after Emerson opened the restaurant, but going through the archives will give you an interesting look at the challenges of starting a business in San Francisco.

Emerson has created a bustling tapas bar, reminiscent of the friendly and boisterous bars in Barcelona. The front counter bar is consistently packed with people drinking wine and munching on delights from the kitchen as they watch Chef Emerson working near the jamon carving station.

His menu is influenced by the Catalan region of Spain, which is anchored by the cuisine of places like Barcelona and Valencia. Heavy on seafood because of its coastal nature, Catalan cuisine also emphasizes local ingredients with simple preparations.

Joining me for dinner one night was my friend Ken, who I remind you is a vegetarian who also eats seafood. Just no red meat, which meant we basically bypassed the entire appetizer section detailing the varieties of jamon — the cured ham from Spain.

We did start the night with a glass of cava ($9), the Spanish sparkling wine. We sat near the back overlooking the outdoor garden, and I could have just sat there all night sipping my cava and staring out at the various herbs and greens along the sides.

But we actually got some food, starting with this beautiful Little Gem Salad ($9) that was speckled with roasted red beets and topped with crunchy garlic chips. It was a beautiful representation of the season, with the salad lightly dressed with an aged sherry vinaigrette (called vinagreta in Catalan). I especially liked how Emerson sent out a few beets (mostly the pretty chioggia beets) barely cooked and thinly sliced for even more contrasts in texture.

Another salad was the Pulpo Salad ($9) or octopus with preserved lemons, celery slices, black olives and frisee all held together with a lemon vinagreta. The octopus was perfectly cooked, tender but not chewy, and the tart flavors make this a refreshing dish.

Continuing our tastes of the sea was the Local Calamars ala Planxa ($10) or calamari served up with my current favorite padron peppers. This striking dish of tender calamari and mildly hot peppers was spiced up Catalan-style with the bright orange romanesco sauce.

We also had a side of sautéed sweet corn ($7) with zucchini and cherry tomatoes, tossed in basil and pimenton (smoked paprika). This was simple, but a hearty reflection of summer all shaded in the orange tinge of the pimenton.

I did sneak in one meat dish for myself, and that was the Albondigas ($10), a plate of pork and jamon meatballs in a tomato sherry sauce. The meatballs were tender and nicely packed, with the fresh meat breaking apart in your mouth with each bite.

At this point, you might be thinking this isn’t really enough food for two people, and you’re right because we also ordered a plate of sardines. But our server (who I have to say was very friendly and helpful) didn’t hear me order the sardines so they never showed up. Ken and I were enjoying all the dishes we had (which came at a fast pace) that we didn’t even miss the sardines. By this time we were nearly full and were more interested in checking out the desserts.

For his dessert, Ken ordered the Blue Bottle Coffee helado (gelato) with chocolate sauce ($8). I took a bite and it had a nice subtle coffee flavor, with a wonderful texture.

I wanted to try the Bomba ($8), which I confused for a doughnut but is actually a cream dessert. At Contigo, it’s made with a layer of apricot helado and wild blackberry helado, then served with raspberry sauce and roasted apricots on the side.

It was a fun and pretty dish, and reminded me more of mousse than ice cream. The dessert is more whipped, giving it a light flavor.

It’s taken me a long time to get out and try Contigo because Noe Valley is a bit far for me. But the meal just emphasized how Contigo is one of the bright new restaurants in the city, providing glimpses of sustainable cuisine with a Spanish flair. It’s definitely a trip worth making again and again.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (Fresh and Flavorful)

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

Contigo on Urbanspoon

Related reviews:
Boqueria Soho: “Did I land in Barcelona?”
Bocanova: “Service Improves but What About the Food?”
La Boqueria market


Hungry Dog said...

Great timing, Ben--I'm going here tonight for the first time! Now I'm even more excited than I was already! Sounds like a wonderful dinner awaits me...

Single Guy Ben said...

HD, let me know what you think of Contigo!

Anonymous said...

I liked Contigo the one time I went, I want to go back. For SF Chef Restaurant Week I think they have a good deal for $50.

Did u take Muni there or walk from a Bart station? We drove once, but I think I could walk from a Bart station.

Hungry Dog said...

Ben, my friend and I had an awesome dinner there last night! We shared the butter beans with chard; sardines with avocado puree on toast (my favorite); oxtail croquettes; and flatbread with nettles and sausage. Plus peach tart w/brown butter ice cream. It was fabulous!

Single Guy Ben said...

Hmm, Hungry Dog that sounds good! I want to go back for the sardines now!

Anon, I actually caught the BART to San Francisco and then transferred downtown to the J-Church line. That takes you all the way to Noe Valley but on the east side of the neighborhood on Church and 24th. So I just walk the few blocks to Castro and 24th where the restaurant is at. It's an easy walk, and nice to browse the little stores along the way.