The server who showed us to our table at Nojo was not the same one who brought us a bottle of water. Yet another server took our drinks order, but he was not the same person who brought our squid, or set down two skewers of chicken thighs. To be frank, I wasn't sure how many waiters we really had: He/she had the same T-shirt, and stepped to the table as if he/she had been watching over it all night, but seemed to change haircuts, genders, and tattoo configurations each time I blinked. It was like being raised by collective mothers. Every time I cried, someone picked me up; after a while, I forgot to care who the arms belonged to.
The restaurant itself belongs to Gregory Dunmore, who was last the chef of Ame and the chef de cuisine of Terra before that, both under the aegis of Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani. Dunmore opened Nojo at the end of March on the ground floor of a new condo building in Hayes Valley. Nojo, which sounds like another of the Bold Italic's microhoods, actually means "farm" in Japanese. The ownerless service: It's called kikubari, in which everyone on staff is responsible for attending to guests' needs. And the satiny, half-furled petals of squid ($8), which had been sautéed with fingerling potato coins and tendrils of tart purslane in a opulent sake butter sauce? Really effing good.
If it hadn't been for Dunmore's résumé, I might have ignored Nojo, another East-West izakaya with a focus on skewers. After all, Nombe, Ippuku, Chotto, Izakaya Sozai, Kasumi, and 2G Brasserie have all opened in the past two years, doing exactly the same thing. What could Nojo add to the genre? A fair amount, it turns out. There's something less self-consciously Japanese and more Hayes Valley about the place. There may be shakers of shichimi on every table, poetically named sakes on the beverage list, and ingredients more likely to be found in Nijiya Market than Safeway, but Dunmore isn't pretending to escape the bounds of California cuisine.
The recognition that Zuni was just a few blocks away, spiritually as well as geographically, struck when the tempura plate ($8) arrived. It reminded me more of Judy Rogers' fritto misto then the elaborately crinkled shrimp that comes out of kitchens like Ozumo. Not a stray drop of oil dotted the paper-lined bowl filled with whole baby fava beans, splayed clusters of maitake mushrooms, and thin slices of Meyer lemon, all coated in a shell no more solid than the crackle they made when we bit in. Next to the tempura, the waiter set down a salad of Little Gem lettuce and radish ribbons ($8) that looked like it could have come from nearby Bar Jules, except for the inch-wide rolls of what looked like balsawood shavings — katsuo bushi, or dried, smoked bonito — that had settled into the leaves. The smokiness of the tuna hit the nose first. But its flavor, more earth than ocean, melted into the soy-lemon dressing by the time the radish's acrid bite flared.
Dunmore makes that fresh, plainspoken blend of California and Japan work in most of his "not on a stick" small plates and entrees, such as a rustic salad of snap peas ($5.75), tofu curds, and tiny, round shimeji mushroom caps tossed with unsweetened sesame paste and another salad of avocado chunks ($7.50), flecked with shichimi (a blend of dried chiles, spices, and sesame seeds) and tossed with just enough vinegar and coarsely torn strips of toasted nori to offset the fruits' broad butteriness. A trio of spring tsukemono ($5.75), or pickles, was as delicate as the season's best produce, the vivid crunch of slim orange carrots pickled with horseradish its boldest note.
The other half of Nojo's menu, foods "on a stick," definitely seems the lesser half. I suppose I could describe the skewers as quietly celebrating the ingredients' naked flavors, but after being awed by Christian Geideman's yakitori at Ippuku, I found Nojo's simply dull. Plain, slightly overcooked chicken thighs with leeks ($3.50 a skewer), with no charcoal smoke or tare (soy-based marinade) to augment their flavors, were okay. For all the temptations their menu descriptions offered, so were crinkles of chicken skin ($3.25) dusted in matcha (green tea) salt and dry chunks of chicken breast ($3.75) topped with a few pickled cherries and spindly onion sprouts. The raw crunch and livery overtones hadn't been cooked out of the beef heart with ponzu sauce ($4.50), while Nojo's rice ball ($3.50) was packed so firmly it needed to be pried apart with two hands; the surfaces brushed with a sweet soy marinade had burned on the grill.
Perhaps my feelings over Nojo's skewers were so tepid because Dunmore's orange-fleshed trout ($14), its skin brushed with white miso and broiled until it blistered and crisped, was so exquisite. A few other duds — steamed custard with Dungeness crab and green garlic ($13) that hadn't fully set, though it tasted great, and mushy Genghis Khan lamb riblets ($14) padded with gamy fat — were balanced out by kara age of fried chicken wings ($6.50) with taut, brittle skins and glistening flesh underneath, the chicken dusted in just enough smoked shichimi to prickle the tongue.
The space, like the food, reflects Hayes Valley more than Japan, with its new-condo sheen and front-row view of the cranes next door. From the reclaimed-wood tables and the raw concrete surfaces to the woven lamp shades and long bar, almost every surface in the place is squared, but comfortable nonetheless. Dunmore stands at the heart of the silvery open kitchen, flanked by a couple of deputies, while all the other staff flow in and around him, their paths quick-footed and impossible to predict.
The opera ticket holders from Woodside haven't yet discovered the fact that Nojo's service is as good as at the restaurants where they spend three times as much money. So, for the moment, the crowd resembles the restaurant's staff — young, ethnically scrambled, in close-fitting clothes and an abundance of scarves. Stray details from their dating lives fly off the tables and buzz about the room; flowing toward them, as if in exchange, are mugs of Linden Street's black lager and bottles of small-production local beers. Chances are, the diners the drinks are destined for won't remember who took their order by the time it arrives.