Venue Review: Nopa
At a time when many chefs are making their names with culinary tricks straight out of a chemistry lab, Laurence Jossel is piling up accolades with a return to the basics. A wood-fired oven, impeccable ingredients and inspired cooking are the formula for success at Nopa in San Francisco.
The 130-seat restaurant, named after its neighborhood just north of Golden Gate Park's panhandle, was an almost instant hit when it opened last April. The crowds are still coming, packing the tables, bar, counter and long communal table every night. There wasn't an empty table when my companions and I arrived for a midweek dinner last month.
It's a casual, friendly place with staff in unmatched brown T-shirts and jeans serving the sort of homey, deeply flavored food that never goes out of style: roast chicken, hamburgers, lentil soup, baked pasta and french fries. There's nothing on the menu designed to shock or astonish, but it's impressive nonetheless.
What sets Nopa apart is the quality of the ingredients -- mostly organic, primarily local -- and the meticulous care with which Jossel and his kitchen crew prepare them. Consider the giant white beans baked with tomato, oregano and feta cheese under a blanket of bread crumbs ($7.50). It's a humble dish, but the beans from Phipps farm in Pescadero are perfectly cooked with skins that just resist the bite and an unctuous, creamy center. A whisper of oregano pesto, a bright note of tomato, a salty edge from the French sheep's milk feta and a bit of crunch from the golden brown crumbs transform the lowly legume into an irresistible dish.
Jossel and his partners -- soon-to-be wife Allyson Woodman and sommelier Jeff Hanak -- planned Nopa as an informal neighborhood place, where diners could relax with honest food drawing on the best of Northern California's agricultural bounty. The frequently changing menu of small plates and hearty entrees with a Mediterranean focus would be based on the seasons. Prices would be affordable -- appetizers run $5-$11, and all entrees are under $20.
Food this good, however, soon attracted a wider audience. The initial policy against reservations, designed to maintain a spontaneous, community feeling, was abandoned when neighbors complained they couldn't get a table without waiting in long lines. Now, reservations are taken up to a month in advance.
Even difficult parking doesn't deter diners from making the pilgrimage from outside the neighborhood. There are no public lots nearby, and street parking spaces are hard to find. But once you've found a space, the greeting at the door is just as warm and welcoming as if you were a regular.
We arrived a few minutes early for our reservation and the hostess apologized that a table wasn't ready when we walked through the door. During the short interval while we waited, several other staff members offered to find us a seat at the bar or bring us something to drink.
The cavernous old bank building has been gutted to create a hip, contemporary setting with polished concrete floors and open wood rafters in the high ceiling. A vaguely cubist mural of the Divisadero neighborhood covers one wall, where a 40-seat mezzanine offers a birds-eye view of the dining room below.
All the hard surfaces make for a noisy environment. The open kitchen at one end and a long, busy bar along the wall of tall windows increase the decibels to a low roar. Once seated at our booth, however, we could enjoy a conversation at normal volume while the buzz swirled around us.
The meal began, not with the usual basket of bread, but a trio of lightly steamed baby carrots from Star Route Farms in Marin and a saucer of Maldon salt. They were delightful, but not adequate to stave off hunger pangs while we waited to order. Maybe the regulars know you can request bread, but we didn't see anything on the menu saying so.
Jossel explains that so much bread goes uneaten at most restaurants that Nopa servers don't automatically put bread on the table. ''We're a sustainable restaurant -- we don't want to throw things away,'' he says. ''If you want it, you can ask for it.''
Cocktails receive as much attention here as the food. In addition to the standard martinis and cosmos, Nopa bartenders create some unusual twists, including an elderflower gimlet ($7). A gorgeous, tall scarlet drink known as the Bitter End ($8) is a terrific aperitif, blood orange juice and the slight spritz of Spanish cava softening the sharp edge of campari and limoncello.
The wine list runs to about 140 bottles, with many varietals from Italy, Spain and France. One in five choices is organic. Wine director Chris Deggan, dressed in a striped shirt with the tails untucked, is the antithesis of the snooty sommelier. Thoughtfully considering our requirements and avoiding winespeak, he steered us to a 2004 Pecchenino Siri d'jermu dolcetto ($39). It was a lovely purple wine, with soft fruit nicely balanced by firm tannins. And it paired gracefully with the tangy, warm goat cheese appetizer ($9.50) and lusty calamari ($9) -- stewed in red wine with olives, capers and anchovies and served on a thick slice of grilled bread.
You could make a satisfying meal with the small plates and a glass of wine -- or even an order of the fantastic fries ($5) with a spicy harissa aioli. But it would be a shame to dine at Nopa without experiencing the succulent, smoky Niman pork chop ($19.50), brined for four hours before being grilled over almond wood, and served atop creamy Dixie butter beans with sauteed kale and garlic confit. Then again, who could pass up the juicy rotisserie chicken ($18), herbs tucked beneath golden, crackling skin, hot out of the wood-fired oven? Served on a bed of wilted escarole with crunchy, rosemary-scented croutons, it rivals the legendary roast chicken of Zuni.
Too bad the pan-roasted steelhead ($19.50), a more delicate cousin of salmon, is going off the menu as its season ends. Expertly cooked, it was nicely moist in the center, although the crisped skin was a bit too salty. On the side were chewy farro, an ancient form of wheat, and roasted asparagus.
Homey desserts by pastry chef Julie Antoine play with tradition. Creme brulee gets a shot of espresso ($7.50), warm doughnut holes are paired with rum caramel sauce ($7.50), and dense chocolate cake ($8) is topped with vanilla ice cream swirled with dark, malty stout. Sticky toffee pudding cake ($7.50) is a good choice with its notes of burnt sugar. But the trio of house-made citrus sorbets ($7) stood out for the almost shocking intensity of Meyer lemon, navel orange and grapefruit, daring to be more tart than sweet.
The simplest dishes have a habit of becoming extraordinary delights at Nopa.