Nopa, SF

My experience in getting a table at Nopa has been a little like others’ experience getting one at The French Laundry. By a stroke of sheer luck, however, my friend nabbed a reservation for a reasonable dinner time on short notice.

The first thing one notices about the restaurant is the high ceiling. The long wood bar makes Nopa feel modern and sexy. It brings to mind a woman slipping into four-inch stilettos to give the appearance of mile-long gams.

(Am I the only one? Yeah, I’m probably the only one.)

The second thing is the noise level of Nopa. This restaurant was LOUD and it wasn’t even the weekend. Your Nopa voice is right smack in between your usual inside voice and having a “conversation” in a club at 11pm (that is, just before the party really gets going).

Srsly? Srsly.

One doesn’t expect amuse bouches at casual restaurants, but here we are: toasts with a sauce of yogurt mixed with Meyer lemon and sour plum, and the server recommended sprinkling some salt on top.

Great concept, but the sauce was altogether too sweet on its own and the toast too oily. Our first bite of the night would have been more successful had the carrier for the yogurt sauce been something more savory. It should’ve been included in the Piggy Platter ($14):

Heerrrrrree, piggy piggy piggy piggy!

But okay, you can’t go wrong with a classic accompaniment like good mustard. The trotter terrine was my favorite: rich yet leaner than others I’ve had, and even a smidgen sweet. Also good was the smoked tenderloin, but, like the bratwurst, wasn’t anything special. Supremely-crunchy (read: use your molars for these) pork rinds rounded out this pig-focused plate.

The roasted squash ($11) was a welcome relief from all of that meat. Fork-tender all the way through, the squash came with a delightful curried yogurt sauce, pomegranate seeds, and little slices of preserved Meyer lemon.

The only thing I like about winter

The combination was genius. A properly composed bite was robust, creamy, tangy, tart, sweet, rich, and fresh all at once! My friend really enjoyed the preserved Meyer lemon zest. The squash was the hands-down winner of the night.

Nopa did something very unique with the warm goat cheese dish ($12). In addition to the obligatory crostini, a jar of sliced fuyu persimmon and Asian pear was served alongside! I was tickled by the presentation and I love the idea of offering fresh fruit as an alternative to carbs.

Nice try, but no cigar

I wish that the goat cheese didn’t overwhelm the delicate persimmon, but thumbs-up for a brilliant idea anyway.

Flatbread is flat.

Meh, I was lukewarm about the flatbread ($15). On one hand, it was yummy. On the other hand,

  • it was scant on spicy fennel sausage,
  • the arugula and caramelized onions seemed like they belonged on another dish and didn’t seem to go (the bitterness was a bit much),
  • the bottom was so soggy with juices, which was great for flavor but poor for structural integrity, and
  • potatoes? What potatoes?

Nopa is known more for its small plates, but the menu has an excellent, varied selection of main courses.

As my favorite fish is black cod, the one here was a no-brainer.

Behold the no-brainer

Nopa’s wood-baked black cod ($25) was near-perfection. The flesh was spot-on: cooked just to doneness, so that it is soft and fall-apart tender. The skin was crunchy, but had a fishy taste.

WHAT’S UP WITH THAT, NOPA?!

And all the salt!

Lay off the salt.

Anyway, the spiced fried chickpeas were fascinating! They are the new peanuts and I can eat them by the handful all day long. Curried, salty, and crunchy, they added a surprising dimension to this course.

Heeerrrrree fishy fishy fi- oh wait, no.

Homemade parpadelle with pork sugo, kabocha squash, oregano, and parmesan ($19) demonstrated clearly that squash isn’t utilized nearly enough. Starch on starch? In this case, YES.

Evidence again that pork makes everything better

It would’ve been perfect had there not been so much salt. The pasta was just al dente and chewy, and a mouthful of squash and pork was comforting and satisfying. It makes you sort of wish you had a cup of apple cider, a roaring fire in the fireplace, and a hundred fewer people around.

My food adventures is turning into the Battle of the Chèvre Cheesecakes. I couldn’t resist trying Nopa’s version ($8), which came with pork-soaked figs and candied walnuts (and the wrong accent mark over the ‘e’!)

Measure up to Foreign Cinema’s, it did not.

The best parts of the cheesecake, I am a little sad to report, are the figs. Heavy on the port, the figs were great with the candied walnuts – delightfully crunch and deceptively un-fatty.

If only the cheesecake contained less sugar. The point of chèvre cheese is the wonderful tang and I missed it.

Another almost-but-not-quite dessert was the Meyer lemon curd tart ($8). Both the lemon curd and mandarin ice cream were too sweet!

Nopa does get golf claps for using candied thyme. It had a slight crispiness and the savory, herby hint of lemon was beautiful, and I imagine it would have really elevated the dessert to something special had there not been so much sugar present already.

Citrus on citrus

A word to the wise: I would absolutely NOT recommend ordering this much food. (Eyes bigger than stomach much? Yes.)

For the average eater, one main and 1½ small plates plus dessert would be just perfect. To be honest, neither my companion nor I were wowed by the selection of small plates and were only able to pick four. (We had intended to order more – long story – so we got two mains to make up for it.)

Service wasn’t as warm as the interior, but the servers were attentive enough. Nopa is located in a great neighborhood with interesting things to see and only a block from the famous Alamo Square. (Full House, anyone? Yeah, I totally watched the Tanners.)

THE VERDICT:

I will not be making a return trip. On the whole, my meal at Nopa didn’t inspire any passion, good or bad (even the squash, which was very good, was not great). The food was definitely good and very much worth a try, but it was a world of meh and I had expected more from such a popular and raved-about restaurant.

It was so loud that it isn’t my top choice for any kind of intimate get-together, so I would recommend it as a venue for a party (an excuse to sit at the high communal table).

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