Chicken hearts with sansho.
Chicken skin and matcha sea salt.
Miso soup with summer squash, nameko mushrooms, scallions, and tofu.
Squid, new potatoes, and chrysanthemum leaves in a sake-butter-garlic sauce.
Nojo sundae with black sesame ice cream, candied kumquats, and peanut Thunder Crackers.
The dining room at the end of service.
If I had to pick one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Japanese. I know, blasphemy, not Italian?! (Don’t tell my dad.) But it’s true—I adore the range of styles and flavors it offers, from high to low, formal to homey, decadent to pristine. And since we’re on the topic of decadence, let’s just talk about chicken skin grilled on a stick, shall we? Right along with beef tongue on a stick, and its BFF, beef heart on a stick. Yeah, leave it to the Japanese to perfectly cut and impale some tender bits on a stick, brush them with a tare sauce (a thickened and seasoned soy sauce used for grilling), and slowly cook them over charcoal. That’s the stuff.
Don’t get me wrong, ~NOJO~ in Hayes Valley offers much more than offal on a stick on its menu, but I will say diners who enjoy meatses partses get nicely rewarded here. While the restaurant is billing itself as an izakaya, it’s definitely a California-ized one, featuring seasonal ingredients from top local farms (nojo means farm), and the food has a clean taste to it, with composed presentations on a variety of plates and dishes that aren’t short on style. And true to its San Francisco nojo mojo, vegetarians and carnivores can coexist nicely here.
There are about 15 items in the “not on a stick” section of the menu, like tender shiitake and English pea gyoza ($9.50)—but vegetarians take note: there’s pork in them there dumplings, even though the menu doesn’t say so. Chef-owner Greg Dunmore previously worked at Ame and Terra with Hiro Sone, so you’ll also note some more refined touches as well, like the sake-garlic-butter sauce with the most tender sautéed squid ($8), plus beautiful halves of new potatoes (so soft and savory) and a sprinkle of chrysanthemum leaves—the sauce made me crave some bread for a second there.
There are some simpler dishes, like the miso soup ($8), with a portion generous enough for three to share (or one hungry vegetarian to have all to themselves). It’s the kind of soup I wish I made more often for myself at home, with tender tofu, silky nameko mushrooms, scallions, and summer squash. Very fulfilling—and I liked the farmers’ market spin to the ingredients.
There’s also a tempura dish ($9) that changes with what’s in season (once it came with maitakes and baby favas, another time with blue oyster mushrooms and fiorelli squash blossoms). While the fry on it was impeccable on one visit, on another the coating was underseasoned, thick, and gummy, and the mushrooms also needed some seasoning. Another seasoning issue came up with one of my favorites, a larger tonkotsu ($14.50) dish—the flavorful and juicy pork came with a great crisp exterior (that thing glistened!), but the cherry, almond, and daikon side salad desperately needed salt.
A couple of salads really exemplify the Japanese-Cali thing going on here, like a flavorful version with little gems ($8) and radishes with katsuobushi (curls of smoky bonito that look like thick pencil shavings), and a cauliflower salad ($8) with spring onions, capers, and more katsuobushi, which perked up with a squeeze of lemon that we pilfered from our chicken skin skewer plate.
Yeah, let’s talk skewers. I tried a thigh ($3.60) with green onion, sea salt, and lemon from the chicken section of the menu (there are eight choices in all), but found the flavors too muted and subtle. Since nojo doesn’t have the benefit of being able to use charcoal like Berkeley’s Ippuku (or the robata bar at Ozumo), I feel like they need to punch things up more to compensate. In general, some dishes would benefit from more salt and more acid—and less shyness from the kitchen.
One chicken skewer that delivered a Yakuza pimp slap was the juicy chicken heart ($3.35) with sansho powder, which has a light numbing agent to it. Wow, it’s Japanese culinary cocaine. (Rub some on your gums and enjoy.) And the aforementioned chicken skin ($3.35)—with tightly packed ribbons of crisp and crackly skin—was seasoned beautifully with sea salt and Meyer lemon. Fat lovers will also want to get acquainted with the thick and rich slices of pork jowl ($4), featuring a light punch of shishito. Yeah, and then there’s that beef tongue ($4), caramelized and cooked perfectly. (Get it.)
Now here’s where the California thing really works in your favor, because you’ll want to finish with a couple of the desserts—you get more than some green tea ice cream, my friend. My fave was the nojo sundae ($8), with two scoops of deeeeelicious Humphry Slocombe black sesame ice cream topped with candied kumquats, on a bed of peanut “Thunder Crackers,” which is basically puffed rice that’s been caramelized with peanuts. Imagine the cereal love child of Kashi and Sugar Smacks, and you’ll understand. The buckwheat crêpes ($7.50) were executed perfectly, with a ginger-muscovado syrup and little slices of apriums, but the accompanying white miso ice cream was icy and not very supple. Ahhh, so close.
I definitely enjoyed the beer list here (there are nine choices in all)—particularly the Sofie from Goose Island ($14, 22 oz.), which went so damned well with the food. On one visit I thought the wine pours felt a bit skimpy (and it’s not because I’m a lush, so just stop right there!), but fortunately nothing is over $9 per glass. You can also go the sake route, and the well-informed servers can tell you all kinds of things about them. Just give me another Sofie, thanks.
About the servers: there’s a funny rotation thing going on here (you can read all about “kikubari” service style on the nojo website). Suffice it to say, you’ll have a hodgepodge of different servers taking care of you, which can sometimes lead to some double questions about what kind of water you’d like, but otherwise they’re pretty darned efficient and friendly (my buddy got a shoulder touch from one, and a server not only remembered me from a previous visit, but also recalled that I had just finished a cleanse as well). The small restaurant has been busy—with some waits for tables—so your meal will move at a quick pace. (If you need to kill a little time, you can grab a beer and sit outside at The Grove, just a few doors up.)
The space is a new buildout, and has a contemporary look that is clean but isn’t particularly warm—even if the staff is—and it’s really lit up at the bar. But the bar was my preferred spot, with ringside seats of the busy kitchen, the grill, and a huge pickling urn with umeboshi inside. Couples can sit at two-tops by the window, and small groups take up the few larger tables in the middle of the room—it’s fun food to eat together.
High marks for the well-appointed bathroom, I gotta hand it to them (it’s outfitted with purse hooks, Kleenex, a power hand dryer, seat covers, and cool art). You can tell they’ve considered many details here. Nojo is destined to be an easy fit with the neighborhood: urbane enough for the symphony/opera crowd, and interesting enough for gizzard-eating types. Yup, in this town, that’s a type.