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Contigo takes a bite out of Catalan 

Wednesday, May 6 2009
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The best thing about a trip to Barcelona, the Mediterranean and the architecture of Gaudí notwithstanding, is going on a chateo, or tapas hunt. You've had your afternoon supper, a pleasant siesta, and an early-evening stroll along Las Ramblas, and the hours until the midnight meal stretch ahead. So around 8 o'clock you head out in search of the city's best small plates at a wide array of bars, cafes, and restaurants. Stand at the rail, glass of Jerez in hand, mingling and snacking until it's time for the next destination. There's talk and music and flirting and laughter, with saucers and toothpicks of bacalao and chorizo and fried almonds and prawns drizzled with allioli offering plenty of immediate gustatory gratification. A Barcelona chateo, in short, is Spain — pardon, Catalonia — in all its festive, food-obsessed glory.

The similarities between the Bay Area and Catalonia are striking. Both regions have a fierce independent streak and derive much of their identity from the nearness of the sea. Both are dominated by cities renowned for their leafy, hilly charm and footloose sophistication. And both enjoy a proximal larder of seasonal produce, game, and seafood practically unmatched anywhere in the world ... and the wherewithal to enjoy them absolutely. Contigo, a new Catalan restaurant in Noe Valley, is a fine example of this duality in action. Here, specialties from Spain's northeastern reaches are prepared and served in an environment as lively and attractive as any Barcelona bodega, using foodstuffs sourced from Straus Family Creamery, Monterey Fish Market, and 42 other all-organic local dairies, ranchers, and fisherfolk.

The setting is a striking juxtaposition of steel-concrete moderne and brick-and-tile rustic. Over the course of a two-year remodel, this century-old storefront was transformed into a multipurpose dual-level eatery incorporating a six-stool counter with an open kitchen, a 35-seat dining area, a small wine bar, and a back patio with an herb garden and stacks of firewood for the kitchen's oven. The redesign was environmentally friendly to the max, with the building's original redwood siding reused as interior paneling, cabinets and banquettes crafted out of oak reclaimed from a demolished farmhouse, and tabletops made from Douglas fir crossbeams salvaged from the old Levi Strauss factory on Valencia.

Chef-owner Brett Emerson's take on Catalan cuisine is equally thoughtful and almost always worthwhile. The region's proclivity for simply prepared seasonal ingredients — the California-cuisine mantra, too — is embraced in Contigo's kitchens with just enough additional showbiz to keep things comfortably San Franciscan. Traditional tapas like tiny meatballs and fried potatoes are supplemented with a daily-changing parade of more whimsical small plates as well as a few larger platters and several varieties of cured ham and Spanish cheese. It's fun to sit at the counter and watch all that chopping and sizzling. If you're looking for paella, sangria, and gazpacho — non-Catalan dishes in any case — you've come to the wrong restaurant.

Fortunately, there are several other (less prosaic) tasting options on the menu. Octopus ($8), a traditional favorite, was served in a salad of grapefruit, olives, and fresh fennel that perfectly accented the pulpo's almost creamy texture. Another classic dish, albondigas ($8), was prepared with a ground lamb-and-pork mixture that gave these fork-tender marble-sized meatballs a rich and satisfying flavor. The housemade bacalao ($8) had the texture of light, creamy mashed potatoes and a hearty but not overly briny-salty codfish flavor, with a wrapper of red piquillo pepper adding sweetness and crunch. White beans and sausage ($8), a Catalan specialty, was bland and soupy in Contigo's rendition despite the presence of the pig's trotters and ears (a gristly acquired taste). But the fava greens ($8), bright and verdant as a spring meadow but a lot tastier, were dotted with pine nuts and golden raisins, just like in the old country, and doused with pot likker and thick, fragrant olive oil. But the best thing on the menu was the pork belly bocadillo ($8), three small filets with a crisp coating and an inner fatty lusciousness almost foie gras–like in its intensity. It was served on a brioche bun with pickled red onions and a subtle allioli and is one of the city's finer snack items.

The larger plates weren't quite as impressive. Coca ($17), a pillowy Catalan flatbread similar to naan, was available in a couple of varieties, vegetarian and pancetta, and while the latter's medley of shaved asparagus, nutty Majorero cheese, salty anchovies, and paper-thin pigmeat was scrumptious, there wasn't enough of it to cover more than half the loaf. The "suquet" (juicy) halibut ($18) was indeed moist and delicate, a perfectly prepared piece of fish, but its subtle flavor wasn't accented enough by the dish's half-dozen clams and bland, mildly oily sauce. And the slow-roasted goat with saffron honey ($19) was on the chewy side and minimally apportioned to boot, but it was as richly flavored as a pleasantly gamy lamb shank and came with braised spring onions and a healthy handful of enormous sweet peas.

An outstanding dessert was the creamy Straus yogurt panna cotta ($7), a denser, almost cheesecake-y variation on the Italian classic with a nice tangy undertone and a dollop of subtly floral rose petal jam. The cookie plate ($8) was hit and miss: the caramel alfajore was a buttery, brown-sugary dream, the chocolate truffle was a cohesive bumboozer of bittersweet decadence, and the pine nut panellet was as moist and chewy as a good macaroon, but the porker-shaped bacon-peanut butter cookie suffered from a surfeit of bacon bits and a dearth of PB flavor, while both the chocolate and the olive oil cookies lacked flavor and pizzazz. But the chocolate caliente con churros ($8) was fun and delectable at the same time — four slender, surprisingly light-textured sugar-coated fritters fresh and crunchy from the fryer, with a mug of thick, velvety hot chocolate to dip them in.

The 49-item wine list offers an impressive selection of reasonably priced vintages from Spain and Portugal. Amontillado ($7 per glass) is practically imperative when you're snacking on slivers of cured Serrano ham; cava ($7-$9 per glass) is surprisingly yummy with a wedge of aged sheep's-milk queso artesano; and Catalonia's rich, bold Viñedos de Ithaca Odysseus ($57 a bottle) is the ideal complement to oxtail croquetas, flatiron steaks, and other hearty fare. (Seven top-shelf beers and Bordelet hard cider from France are also available.) One of the half-dozen ports or dessert wines will end the evening nicely, or opt for a pot of bracing loose-leaf lemongrass ginger tea ($4). Happy hunting!

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Matthew Stafford

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