A hoary bit of wisdom teaches that we should be careful what we wish for, because we might get it and if we are a new restaurant wishing for a meteoric rise, what might we expect? Few restaurants in recent memory have soared as sensationally as Nopa, which opened near the Panhandle in the spring of 2006 to widespread acclaim. By the end of that year the place was anointed by the San Francisco Chronicle as a "classic" and admitted to the pantheon of the area’s "Top 100" restaurants.
The only comparable spectacle I could think of was the birth of Firefly, whose first menus in the autumn of 1993 attracted the instant and adulatory attention of the food media, followed by galloping herds of the trend-involved. There are meaningful differences between the two narratives: Firefly was a fairly small neighborhood enterprise in a quiet neighborhood, whereas Nopa is a much larger operation on a busy thoroughfare in a bustling part of town. But the basic question remains: how does a young restaurant handle instant and massive acclaim, and what happens when the circus leaves town? Does the venture survive the decompression and adjust itself to life in the light of common day, or, having been over inflated, does it pop like a bubble? Bubbles do have a way of popping.
Buzz, like infatuation (of which it is a form), is a temporary condition, and people under the influence of buzz are in a state of altered consciousness in which they can fail to notice all sorts of sins, from uneven food to erratic service problems that are most likely to afflict restaurants in their early, teething stages. But when the buzz wears off and the media turns to the business of telling everyone what to think about some other place, people regain their senses and start to notice what is in front of them at the place nobody’s talking about any more.
Nopa, like Firefly, has survived its passage through this crucible. The restaurant’s proprietors, Laurence Jossel and Jeff Hanak, have kept a steady hand on the tiller, and the result today is a buzzing convivium of mostly younger folk, animatedly gathered at the restaurant’s several foci, including a Chaucerian communal table at the front, a bar along the north wall, and a mezzanine overlooking the exhibition kitchen with its wood-burning oven. There’s even a gathering place for service staff, a round table near the foot of the stairs to the mezzanine, well-stocked with napkins, flatware, and other gear for resetting tables.
And there is Jossel’s excellent food. He made a splash a few years ago at Chez Nous, and he’s brought a similar urban-rustic flair to the kitchen at Nopa. An iconic Jossel dish might be a small crock of cannellini beans ($9), baked in the wood oven with tomatoes, feta cheese, and oregano for a distinctively Greek effect. One is tempted to describe this dish, which is crusted with bread crumbs, as a gratin, but it isn’t, really; there isn’t quite a word for it, and this is a big clue about the kitchen’s intentions and methods. Recombinant cooking carries its share of risks, but if, as here, it’s pursued intelligently, with a sense of place and past if it’s evolutionary rather than revolutionary it can produce exquisite results like this one, novel yet grounded.
God is in the details, in the kitchen as elsewhere. Most of Nopa’s dishes are recognizable, with small, gracious twists and innovations to set them apart. Calamari ($9) are braised in a golden-bronze saffron broth along with quartered new potatoes and a scattering of fried chickpeas. A soup ($8) of white beans and kale, along with plenty of bacon and a base of chicken stock, is like an unpuréed version of the Portuguese soup caldo verde. And flatbread ($14) resembles a little square pizza, topped perhaps with slivers of red onion, white cheese, and prosciutto.
We were particularly impressed with the pork chop ($22), which distinguished itself through a tender juiciness that could not entirely be attributed to gentle cooking. (The meat was done to about medium, I would say, with a broad hint of pinkness in the middle). Our server confirmed that the pork had indeed been brined for several hours in brown sugar; it ended up being plated on a bed of soft polenta dotted with roasted root vegetables and ribbons of fried taro root.
Quite as good in its own way was a braised lamb shank ($25) still on the bone, Neanderthal-style nested in a salad of toasted farro grains, shreds of chanterelle mushrooms (a pretty yellow-orange, though not as spectacularly colored as the examples I saw at a Helsinki farmers market in August), and a pile of mustard greens. There are only so many ways to describe meat so tender that it falls away from the bone at the touch of a fork or knife, and I have not found a new way. But this was meat of that sort.
The hamburger ($12), made from grass-fed beef, is simply sublime, one of the best I have ever tasted in the city or anywhere. It’s presented on a toasted bun of discreet robustness not a fancy, fluffy focaccia but not a skinny hack job, either. Even the sometime vegetarian was impressed by the burger’s rosy juiciness, or perhaps he was faintly disappointed by his tagine ($17), a medley of root vegetables (mostly parsnips and turnips) gussied up with lemon yogurt. He described the tagine as "good," which would have been fine if everything else hadn’t been excellent.
Among the desserts, the primus inter pares is the sopapillas ($8), an array of pastry pillows, deep-fried, dusted with sugar, and ready to be doused with burnt-orange caramel sauce. You pour that out yourself from a ceramic flask, no sweat.
Dinner: nightly, 6 p.m.1 a.m.
560 Divisadero, SF
Noisy but bearable