You would never know restaurants are feeling the current economic pinch if you stepped into NOPA on a recent rainy Sunday evening. The surprising number of people packed into this particular restaurant on a traditionally off night is a testament to its popularity with San Francisco diners. And they have good reason to like the place. The food is farm fresh with an emphasis on seasonal, local, and organic produce; the service is friendly and attentive; and the atmosphere is lively and attractive. What’s not to like?
NOPA (North of the Panhandle) is large, modern, and sophisticated; but it has the underpinnings of a country kitchen. Originally built in the 1920’s as a bank, the space has been transformed into an inviting gathering place by balancing contemporary architecture with a few rustic elements that remind patrons of the restaurant’s strong connection with the local purveyors and the rural setting from which they came.
Early in the evening, the massive room is cheerfully illuminated with light from several large windows that run the length of the front and side of the restaurant. The sheer size of the place allows for several seating options including the communal table by the entrance, and the balcony that provides a bird’s eye view of diners below. If you don’t care for high ceilings and loud acoustics, the cozy section under the steal balcony is suited for quiet conversation. There is also a Picasso-esque mural painted by local artist Brian Barneclo that adds just the right amount of punch, and helps to visually divide the gigantic space into more intimate sections.
But the heart of the restaurant is in the open kitchen where it feels more like an intimate farmhouse. This is where you will find Chef Laurence Jossel and his band of cooks huddled around an old wooden table, feverishly slicing meats and plating pastas as expediters wipe the rims of plates before the dishes are quickly carried off to the dining room. At the center of the kitchen is a huge wood fired rotisserie and grill, emanating sounds and smells that intoxicate one’s senses as soon as he or she enters the restaurant. Suddenly you find yourself drunk with hunger and wanting to order everything on the menu, and you haven’t even had a cocktail yet.
And speaking of cocktails, NOPA has quite a reputation for serving some of the best libations in the city, including a few signature drinks that are more austere than the usual syrupy concoctions found on most bar menus. The Wash House, made with Square One Vodka, muddled basil leaves, lime juice and garnished with a sprig of thyme, is the perfect complement to an order of Warm Marinated Olives. Another fine cocktail is the Summer Cup, which is more or less a fancy Gin and Tonic made with Beefeater 24, Dimmi (an Italian herbal liqueur), Yellow Chartreuse, tonic, and cucumber. The bar opens at 5:00pm everyday but only serves bar snacks until dinner service, which begins at 6:00pm and goes to 1:00am.
The dinner menu offers eight to ten different starters, entrees, and desserts; But because so much of the menu focuses on fresh seasonal produce, a large part of it changes every few weeks depending on what is readily available. For the customer, this devotion can be a double-edged sword. Sure the food is ridiculously fresh and is at the pinnacle flavor, but what’s here today is often gone tomorrow. If you come back to the restaurant a few weeks later looking for a particular dish from a previous visit, you will undoubtedly find the chef has moved on to greener pastures -- and I don’t mean figuratively.
On my visit, my first bite of the farm fresh produce came as an amuse bouche, which was nothing more than a single slice of red plum topped with a few crystals of course sea salt. At first I thought to myself, “Sliced plum? This is the best you can come up with?” Then I popped the little tidbit in my mouth and was surprised at how this incredibly simple combination of fruit and salt managed to trick my taste buds into thinking I was eating a slice of a perfectly ripe tomato. This was in fact very amusing and made me think about how the simplest things, if handled with the greatest respect, can in fact be the most flavorful.
This approach to creating intense flavor profiles from uncomplicated ingredients is the foundation for every dish that comes out the kitchen at NOPA. Why mess with great ingredients if you don’t have to? I wish this kind of restraint was more prevalent in other kitchens around town. So many cooks tend to mask a dish’s individual flavors with over preparation and complicated sauces. The cooks at NOPA let the ingredients speak for themselves. Their technique in preparation only seems to coax the essence of each ingredient onto the plate, and ultimately into your mouth.
There are several starters that are worth exploring, but one of my favorites is the Flatbread with smoked bacon, corn, rapini greens, and Gruyere. This is a great item to share with the table. The Flatbread has a thin crust and is reminiscent of something between a pizza and a cracker. Unlike a traditional pizza where the cheese is often the main ingredient, the Gruyere is used sparingly like a condiment. The bacon, which is smoked in-house directly over the wood-burning oven, is not overly crispy; it’s slightly chewy, letting the bacon fat impart a tremendous amount of flavor and richness to the sauce-less flatbread. The corn and rapini add more than just color and flavor: they add that all-important fourth food group, i.e. the vegetable group, making for a delightful dish that may keep my nutritionist happy.
Another nice item to share is the salad of Little Gem Lettuces with creamy herb vinaigrette and grated Serena (a raw cow’s milk cheese). This is NOPA’s take on a Caesar Salad and has become a staple on the ever-changing menu. The egg-based vinaigrette is bursting with tarragon, mint, basil, thyme, and parsley, and generously coats the baby lettuce. The traditional croutons are replaced with crunchy breadcrumbs that add just the right amount of contrasting texture, and the slightly salty and creamier grated Serena is a welcomed replacement to the ubiquitous Parmesan.
The Grass Fed Hamburger is another mainstay on the menu and for good reason. The burger is a stunning example of restraint in the kitchen, letting the quality and the flavor of the beef shine through without covering it up with gooey toppings. I ordered it medium rare and that’s exactly the way it came out, pink in the center and juicy. The burger is served on a toasted bun with your choice of cheese, a smear of herbed mayonnaise, and some house-made pickled onions on the side. The pink pickled onions have just the right touch of acidity to cut through the richness of the beef. The addictive French Fries that accompany the burger have a crispy exterior and smooth creamy interior, making them almost too good to dip into ketchup.
Since NOPA is open later then most restaurants in the area, it’s a great destination for late night coffee and dessert, which is exactly what I did. Dessert is another place where their dedication to local fresh produce really makes a difference. With the end of summer and the beginning of fall, the bounty of fruit available at the local farmers market is well represented on the current dessert menu. A friend and I shared the toasted Johnny Cake with sautéed Summer Apples and Bacon Brittle Ice Cream. The cornmeal-based Johnny Cake is slightly dry to absorb the melting ice cream. The apples are lovely and add a nice tartness to the dish, but the real star is the Bacon Brittle Ice Cream. Whoever said adding bacon to anything is an improvement has one more example to reinforce his or her argument. The same sweet smoky combination you get by dipping your bacon in maple syrup is achieved in one creamy spoonful of this delightful ice cream.
NOPA is the kind of restaurant that really has its heart in the right place. They understand we live on a finite planet without infinite resources, and they seem to make every effort to support the stewards of these resources. Some are ranchers, some are fisherman, and some are farmers; but they all have the same desire to provide quality ingredients in a sustainable way. The people who work at NOPA are passionate about their craft and it shows. Even the wait staff seems thoroughly excited about the dishes they are serving. With this kind of enthusiasm for bringing their customers the best they can offer throughout the year, how can you not check in with NOPA at least once every season to see what they have come up with next?