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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

No. 26: Nopa's Mussels with Harissa

Posted By on Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 6:17 PM

click to enlarge Nopa's mussels with harissa, young spinach leaves, and grilled bread, $11. - ALBERT LAW/PORKBELLYSTUDIO.COM
  • Albert Law/
  • Nopa's mussels with harissa, young spinach leaves, and grilled bread, $11.

SFoodie's countdown of our 92 favorite things to eat and drink in San Francisco, 2011 edition.

click to enlarge sf_92.jpg

Mussels are tricky. Overwhelm them with strong flavors and you strangle them. Leave them alone ― steam them open simply with a little chicken stock or white wine ― and they can seem too slack and fleshy, with a softly funky smell like a tidepool left to evaporate once the surf recedes.
The cooks at Nopa walk a chalk line when it comes to the little bivalves, often tossing them with a surprisingly assertive flavoring: the Tunisian hot sauce harissa. It's house-made, says Nopa's Laurence Jossel, a blend of New Mexican and flaked red chiles, garlic, cumin, coriander, olive oil, and a measure of tomato the chef calls "a smidge." The presence of harissa makes the sauce at the bottom of the bowl potentially incendiary, but here it blends with the mussels' juices, a squeeze of lime, and enough butter to emulsify into a quick pan sauce so smooth it seems enriched with cream, but more fluid, silkier than that. The muffled bite of chile, the scorched-straw taste of cumin: They make the mussels (Tomales Bays or Penn Coves, usually) seem unbelievably sweet.

A slab of toasted Acme Italian bread ― smoky from the wood grill ― turns to custard as it sits, absorbing the brick-orange sauce. You slice off hunks with your spoon after the mussels are no more than a pile of spent shells in the boneyard, the smell of a particularly sun-bleached sea on your fingers.

560 Divisadero (at Hayes), 864-8643.

Dishes in our series so far:

92: Goat tacos from El Norteño
91: Faux shark's fin soup at Benu
90: Esperpento's alcachofas a la plancha
89: Poco Dolce's olive oil chocolate bar
88: Decantr's chicken-liver mousseline
87: Outerlands' levain bread
86: Fraîche's frozen yogurt
85: Gyro King's spinach pie
84: Tandoori fish from Lahore Karahi
83: Braised oxtail and daikon from Namu
82: Golden Gate Bakery's custard tarts
81: Commonwealth's cured foie gras with umeboshi purée
80: Star Stream's Liège-style waffle
79: Mexican hot chocolate from La Oaxaqueña
78: Meatball sandwich from Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe
77: Cheesecake from Zanze's
76: Chicken pepian at San Miguel
75: Macau iced coffee at Vega/Special Xtra
74: Comstock Saloon's Pisco Punch
73: Hai Ky Mi Gia's duck leg noodle soup
72: Sauerbraten at Walzwerk
71: Boudin noir at Cafe Bastille
70: Blackstrap molasses gingerbread at Lotta's Bakery
69: Plow's crispy potatoes
68: Prospect's Catcher in the Rye
67: Pork banh mi from Little Vietnam Cafe
66: Nakaochi at Ippuku
65: Sidekick's chocolate spritzer
64: Farmhouse Culture's horseradish-leek sauerkraut
63: Destination Baking Co.'s challah
62: Cotogna's roasted carrots
61: Hard Knox Cafe's chicken and waffles
60: The Rebel Within from Tell Tale Preserve Co.
59: The Slanted Door's Whiskey Cocktail
58: Carnitas burrito from Taqueria San Francisco
57: Sakura mochi from Benkyodo
56: Birria at Gallardos
55: BBQ pork skewers at Fil-Am Cuisine
54: JapaCurry's katsu curry
53: Vegan flan at Gracias Madre
52: Cinderella Bakery's pelmeni
51: Locavore's maple andouille sausage
50: Lumpia from Hapa SF
49: Moonlight Brewing's Reality Czeck
48: Filetti pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana
47: Pupusas revueltas at La Santaneca
46: Khoresht ghaymeh at Maykadeh
45: Los Muertos at Gitane
44: Sandwich cookies from Sweet Constructions
43: Nicasio Valley Cheese Company's square
42: Nopalito's quesadilla roja
41: Croissant from Sandbox Bakery
40: Cultured's burdock kasu-zuke pickles
39: Sticky chewy chocolate ice cream at Swensen's
38: Maverick's warm Brussels sprouts with slow-cooked egg
37: Roast chicken from Limón Rotisserie
36: Seven Hills' raviolo uovo
35: Morning bun from Pinkie's Bakery
34: Kaw soi dok at Mandalay
33: Fatted Calf's meatloaf sandwich
32: Duck larb at Thai House Express
31: Lark Creek Steak's burger
30: Barbacco's chicken thighs with olives and almonds
29: Mow Lee's lap cheong
28: Dollar oysters at Bar Crudo
27: Fava greens from Tairwa'-Knoll Farms

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