This week's tablehopper: stars and tripes.
SPQR’s crostino with burrata, hazelnuts, honey, chile threads, and sage.
July 1st, really? What the hell is going on? I want this longer-daylight thing to last as long as possible, thanks. Let’s flip this thing down to third gear, okay? Although I’m sure many of you are all ready-set-go for your long weekend. Fire up the grill! I’ll actually be home writing my column on the 4th of July, because boss of me doesn’t recognize the holiday. Boss of me needs to get battered with a flag.
This week has had some definite highlights, like the burrata with hazelnuts and honey at SPQR on Tuesday (diabolical, truly), and I started a local barbecue “safari” on Wednesday since there’s so much barbecue going on in the city right now. Let’s just say Smoke is doing some mighty fine ‘cue—stand by for a full recap in the next month or so. Last night was the San Francisco magazine Best of the Bay party, which always offers some unparalleled people watching while you cruise your way around the room balancing your glass and plates of food. It’s the year of pimento cheese, methinks.
Today’s fresh meat review—true to its name—features the chicken hearts, pork jowls, and much, much more at nojo in Hayes Valley, plus we have a 707 Scout for you wine country folks.
Happy 4th of July, and here’s hoping the fog stays the hell away. Seriously.
New Restaurant Reviews (I'm looking for somewhere new to eat)
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.
Nojo - 231 Franklin St. San Francisco - 415-896-4587
Wine Country Buzz (it’s what happens there)
Napa's Summer Crop of Restaurants
By 707 correspondent, Deirdre Bourdet.
This June in Napa was the rainiest in years, which made everybody cranky. Luckily we also had a rash of new restaurant openings to keep our spirits up through the grey days of early “summer.”
Yesterday the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group opened ADDENDUM, an all-takeout lunchtime operation in a small building behind Ad Hoc in Yountville. For $16.50, you can now score Ad Hoc’s famed buttermilk fried chicken (or barbecue) every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, plus two side dishes that change daily. If you can’t line up and place your order in person, you can call it in; big group orders must be made at least 24 hours in advance by email. Follow @AddendumatAdHoc on Twitter to get the current menu, and to find out how close they are to selling that last piece of glorious chicken. Hours are Thu-Sat 11am-2pm, or until food runs out. 6476 Washington St. at Mission, Yountville, 707-944-1565.
After an extended renovation that pushed back opening night by several months, EIKO’S finally opened at the corner of First and Franklin Streets in downtown Napa last Friday June 24th. Incredibly, the finished product looks exactly like the architect sketches on the restaurant’s Facebook page—a very far cry from Piccolino’s beige waiting room glory. Thanks to chef/partner Eiko Nakamura’s guidance, the food has also taken a dramatic turn for the swank. Everything I tried at the soft opening party was clean, contemporary, and very, very tasty. Greaseless fried calamari, chilled tomato soup sparkling with fresh ginger, seared ahi and avocado “tacos” in delicate wonton shells (a 1980s classic that will always be with us, it seems), and very respectable nigiri and maki sushi all got scarfed down in short order. According to the restaurant’s website, they’re now open for lunch and dinner every day, serving until 1am on Friday and Saturday. Another sexy option for Napa’s growing late night dining scene. 1385 First St. at Franklin, Napa, 707-501-4444.
The City of Napa’s oldest surviving structure also emerged from clouds of construction this month with the opening of TASTE OF THE HIMALAYAS in the Old Adobe at the intersection of Soscol Avenue and the Silverado Trail. On the menu: traditional Nepalese, Tibetan, and Indian-influenced dishes reinterpreted with a contemporary twist, using organic produce, free-range meats, and the finest quality wild-caught fish. I interviewed 31-year-old chef/owner Pemba Sherpa shortly after the opening, and confirmed that although he is a partner in the more traditional Taste of the Himalayas on the Sonoma Square, the Napa restaurant is a solo venture like the Sausalito location he opened last fall. Sherpa is now plotting to open a café serving breakfast and lunch at the Napa location, and hopes to score a liquor license that would allow him to start manufacturing tongba, Nepal’s traditional and much beloved millet-based alcohol. Rock ON. Fingers crossed. 376 Soscol Ave. at Silverado, Napa, 707-251-3840.
Last, but certainly not least, KITCHEN DOOR opened Tuesday June 14th in the Oxbow Public Market, in the space formerly occupied by the Oxbow Wine & Cheese Merchants (who are now inside the main hall). As predicted, the former Martini House team (Todd Humphries, Richard Miyashiro, Tim Seberson, and Christopher Litts) are cranking out some mighty fine global comfort food at mighty tiny prices. With counter service, wines on tap, no reservations, and no dish over $20, this place is destined for greatness. Check out a report and pictures from the pre-opening friends and family night here. Open lunch and dinner daily, 11am-9pm. 644 First St. in the Oxbow Public Market, Napa.