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Friday, July 4, 2008

Food Porn: Pisco Sours and Little Fried Fish At Nopa

Posted By on Fri, Jul 4, 2008 at 1:29 PM

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Place: Nopa (560 Divisadero at Hayes)

Occasion: Dinner

Style: "Urban rustic," Californian, according to their website.

Price: Upper mid, take a gander.

Fancy Factor: Casual but stylish. Work up the initiative to wear a collar or heels and you won't feel out of place.

Rationale: Since Nopa opened in '06 and put its namesake neighborhood on the "gourmet ghetto" map, it's been a standard-bearer for San Francisco foodies. Nopa's legions of fans are hardcore enough to start a spirited argument with detractors, and many local chefs and restaurant industry types regard the place like a kitchen-away-from-home, in part because the kitchen stays open until 1:00 a.m. -- all good signs. As a result, expectations (and drink tabs) run high.

Follow the jump for the up close and personal ...

Favorite Dish: Country pork chop, grilled peaches, escarole, and kalamata olives.

Least Favorite Dish: Sopapillas with honey butter sauce.

The Skinny: Bridging the gap between the hippyish remnants of the Haight and, well, the rest of the world, Nopa maintains an organic kitchen, serves filtered tap water, and keeps a large communal table (no reservations!) center stage where the full menu is served. Loners and wanderers welcomed. Housed in a former bank, the two-level space is marked by the gigantic column of soaring windows, an open kitchen, and a bar spacious enough (along with the communal table) to handle most of the nibbling-hipster overflow on any given night. Hands down one of the most comfortably airy places in town to kick back a cocktail.

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A view from on high.

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Two views of country pate, grilled bread, sherry onions, and mustard ($9). The part about Nopa being "rustic" becomes clear in this dish. It ain't your hoity-toity smooth-as-silk French style. No, this is definitely the Chunky Soup of pates, which is a good thing in this case. Remember the motto: "Soup that eats like a meal." But why weren't the cornichons (also known as gherkins) credited on the menu? Poor little cornichons.

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Little fried fish, lemon, and sauce remoulade ($10). They're also known as "fries with eyes" and how can you go wrong with that name? True to form, the eyes are visible as small faint dark spots behind the wall of fry batter. Aim for those, give it a good dunk in the sauce, and you're golden. Like anything fried, it's best served mouth-scaldingly hot, and Nopa delivers. Delicious. Like french fries with Omega-3s.

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Grilled broccoli, lemon, and anchovy ($6). It's been a long road to anchovy enlightenment after a lifetime of knowing them only as the one pizza topping nobody ever orders. Nopa has helped in the cause with this dish. Perfectly grilled broccoli spears spiked with crunchy anchovy-flavored nuggets all around and a squirt of acid from the lemon to tie it all together.

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Baked pasta, porcini mushrooms, roasted cauliflower, cream, and parmesan ($18). Just as good as it sounds, with the surprising addition of roasted cauliflower -- little chunks here and there that soak up some of that rich sauce and complete the textural spectrum, in descending order of hard to soft: the al dente, top-baked rigatoni, the crumbles of fragrant, crispy-and-chewy sausage, the roasted cauliflower, and the hot, slippery, porcinis (there is a reason it's called food porn).

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Country pork chop, grilled peaches, escarole, and kalamata olives ($21). Juicy, sweet peach (with grill marks!), perfectly cooked chop. Olives that didn't massacre everything else in their brininess. All the elements that needed to be perfect in this dish were. A good example of why cooks love Nopa: they make it seem effortless.

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Sopapillas with honey butter sauce ($8). They aren't exactly the enormous, puffy light-as-air Casa Bonita sopapillas of my youth (any Coloradans or South Park geeks out there?), but hell: they're fried, they're covered in sugar, and they come with sauce made of honey and butter.

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Dark and stormy: Cosling's Black Seal Rum, ginger beer, lime wedge ($7) Dark, stormy, and stiff. Enough said.

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Pisco Sour: Quebranta pisco, lemon juice, lime juice, egg white, amargo cusco ($9). As our helpful server explained, pisco concoctions (specifically the pisco punch) go back a long way in San Francisco, to the gold rush days when pisco -- a Peruvian brandy made from grapes -- was cheap and easily available. In fact, the pisco punch was invented right here in town. Ain't that fancy?

-- Brian Bernbaum

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Brian Bernbaum

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