Sardine and avocado toasts.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota “pata negra.”
Asparagus with egg and mojama.
Canelon catalans (pork and chicken cannelloni).
Neighborhood restaurants. We’re in a city full of 49-seaters, local gems with their faithful regulars who have their favorite dishes on the menu, their favorite server, and their favorite table. But it’s a pitch-perfect restaurant that can make you feel like you’re a regular when you’re not.
~CONTIGO~ in Noe Valley just turned one year old in February 2010, and has established itself firmly in the hearts of many food-obsessed locals. It’s the kind of quintessential San Francisco restaurant you want to expose out-of-towners to: it’s in a cute neighborhood with hills; the ingredients are seasonal, organic, and market fresh; owners Brett Emerson and Elan Drucker are always in the house; the look is chic without being snobby; and the menu is varied enough to please the picky and interesting enough to grab the attention of gourmands.
And then there’s the jamón Ibérico de bellota “pata negra.” Yes, that sweet, acorn-finished, 36-month-old top-shelf precious pig is available in two portions, $15 and $29—and it’s the only restaurant in San Francisco where you can taste it. (The one they offer here is from the town of Guijuelo in the Salamanca province.) Yeah, pick it up with your fingers off the wooden cutting board, take a little sniff, and then let its porky goodness coat your tongue. There’s a reason this jamón is as fetishized as it is—it’s rare and not the easiest thing to find and expensive as hell. I can’t wait for the day when I have my very own bellota ham leg in my apartment (if I don’t turn into one first). There are actually all kinds of both domestic and imported hams to tempt you here, six in all—I’m going to come back for a night of comparative grazing.
The other starter that made me sit upright was the plate of anchoas de Cantábrico (anchovies; $5). And as the menu says, they’re three of the world’s finest cured anchovies. No joke, I was ready to order an entire tin of them. They were sweet, meaty, special—and could win over anchovy haters who only think of them as nasty, fishy, little bony things. These were revelatory, even for this anchovy lover. And wait until you dunk your bread into the shimmering green olive oil that’s left on the plate. Yeah, that’s the stuff.
Since we’re talking fish, a standard on the menu is the sardines, no accident since chef-owner Brett Emerson’s blog is In Praise of Sardines, which he hasn’t been able to really update since the restaurant opened (huh, I wonder why—kidding).
Last June, I went crazy over the sardines on the creamy and bright green avocado toasts ($7), and on a recent visit, they were listed on the menu as oven roasted ($9) with a celery and radish salad with Meyer lemon salsa verde. Even if you slightly waver over something like sardines, be fearless here: order them. Sardines: they’re not just for seals or cats.
I was lucky to dine here just as asparagus season started kicking off, because the tender spears of asparagus ($10) topped with an olive oil-fried egg (with wonderful little frizzled edges) and glistening slices of mojama (cured tuna loin that also got an olive oil bath) was one hell of a dish. The finely chopped Marcona almonds with smoky pimentón on the side was a flavorful flourish. This dish is a fabulous homage to asparagus season, go get it.
Smaller plates like tender albóndigas (meatballs; $9) made with pork, lamb, and jamón scraps have a air of decadence to them—as it lands on the table, the smell of cinnamon wafts from the piping hot cast-iron skillet. The note of cumin in the meat and amontillado sherry in the tomato sauce are the Act II players after your first bite—it’s a complex dish. Another little bubbling cauldron from the wood oven that I remember loving was tripe with chorizo and chickpeas. I appreciate that Emerson always has a few dishes that use offal or other whole-animal parts for those who aren’t afraid of things like pig ears.
Well, look at that. Thank heavens, it’s a paella-free zone. While the menu is definitely Barcelona-inspired, of course seasonal California ingredients like Meyer lemons and little gems tickle the restaurant’s Catalan sides.
The menu is structured around a snacky/antipasto course, a first course, and larger plates for those who want to saddle up for a main course. I like that the food is still well-poised to be shared, although you can certainly tuck into your very own dishes if you are dining alone. Then again, I wouldn’t want to sit down to an entire serving of the chickpeas with house-made blood sausage ($8), pine nuts, and plump golden sultanas—just a few bites were all I needed of that delicious but iron-rich dish.
On a recent visit, I got even closer to needing an angioplasty with the homey canelon catalans ($17), savory pork and chicken cannelloni in a bubble bath of béchamel. It was totally a dish that reminded me of the cannelloni Mrs. Tucci made for me when I was invited to her home for pranzo one summer in Calabria—the kind of dish you make to show off for company. It’s the tone of the food here: while everything is well-made and nicely presented, it’s rooted in both a visual and taste theme of rusticity. Homeyness.
While there are definitely some meaty star dishes, you could totally bring a vegetarian here and they’d find plenty to eat outside of the prosciutto and chicken liver and calamares. Dishes also change a lot, so while I miss the amazing fingerling potato chips dusted with spicy pimentón, there are always new dishes to keep you occupied.
A permanent fixture on the menu is the coca (flatbread), blistered and substantial enough that I’d recommend it for larger groups to share—but if you’re just a couple on a date, it’ll fill you up too much. The $17 price tag of a recent one with nettles, black trumpets, melted leeks, Manchego, and thyme struck me as a bit dear, even though I know those ingredients weren’t cheap—and then with the mandatory supplement of $3 for the Fatted Calf bacon (well, mandatory in my world), you’re suddenly looking at a $20 flatbread. Yeah, the Anthony Mangieri pizza zone.
But on that note, are you ready for one of the city’s best dining deals? I’m sure you are. Sunday through Wednesday, you can get the four-course menú del día for only $35. Yup, you get a first course, second course, side dish, and dessert of your choosing—a filling tour de force, such a deal.
Dessert has some troublemakers, like the thick hot chocolate ($4) and fried-to-order churros (addl. $4)—it’s a naughty kind of dessert you want to share if you’re on a date. The burnt caramel flan ($8) is custardy and rich, and is so delicate that if you don’t eat it quickly enough, it will start to fall apart on the plate. Or perhaps you want to linger over some Spanish cheeses, membrillo, and one of their many wonderful sherries and dessert wines?
The all-Spanish wine list has an extensive number available by the glass and carafe, and they’re reasonably priced—be sure to employ the services of wine director Andrew Nelson if he’s on the floor. The night I dined there, he had me taste some unexpected numbers like the Laureano Serres Montagut “Terme de Guiu” from Terra Alta (a funky one that’s not for everyone, but I dug it). You can explore a variety of wines—the staff is happy to turn people on to Spanish wines, and want to help you find one you’ll like.
It’s impressive how well Emerson and the architect (Douglas Burnham of envelope Architecture + Design) managed to fit the restaurant into this tiny space. There’s a bit of a Scandinavian vibe with all the salvaged redwood planks and seating, and I like the different seating levels and areas, from the tiny bar to the covered and heated outdoor patio (you sit next to the restaurant’s vegetable garden). Solo diners can happily perch at the small wine bar in the middle of the restaurant, or at the counter overlooking the cozy open kitchen.
I appreciate all the artful-environmental touches, from the recycled wine punts used as water glasses (filled with house-filtered water, natch) to the Heath ceramic wall tiles in the bathroom and kitchen that were actually “seconds” that are typically discarded. A lot of thought went into creating an environmentally friendly restaurant—you can geek out on all the build-out details here. (In fact, I think it’s wonderful that they posted these details—other businesses can learn from and be inspired by their research and decisions.)
The room is comfortable, and just lively enough. There’s a California ease to the place, drawing in families early in the evening, to groups of friends and ladies and dates for the later seatings. There are some seats reserved for walk-ins, so even if you’re flying solo instead of “contigo” (with you), you’ll likely find a place to dine. (And if it’s your first time, it’s easy to pretend they were saving you a spot. Your spot.)