Much has been said about the six-year old NOPA restaurant, which takes its moniker from the North Panhandle neighborhood that ironically starts across the street from it. A perennial Top 100 favorite, many call it the best restaurant in San Francisco, where reservations are hard to come by and usually made around 30 days in advance. Co-owned by a pair of couples, Executive Chef Lawrence and Alysson Jossel along with former Chow owner Jeff and Coreen Hanak, the 110-seat NOPA is reported to bring in about 400 diners a day and has established this part of Divisadero as a dining destination. The combination of excellent locally-sourced food with a great cocktail program and wine list packs this place on a nightly basis well into the late evening.
Set in a former bank with high ceilings (the vault now serves as the wine cellar), NOPA had no room for us at the busy bar, so we were seated at a table upstairs which offered a great view of the bar and the open-air kitchen:
As is our custom at restaurants with full bars, we started with a couple of cocktails: the Sunshine Fix (Aperol, City of London Gin, Lemon, Angostura) and The Aristocrat (City of London Gin, Campari, Gutiérrez ColosÍa Oloroso). Both of the drinks were expertly made and served as great aperitivos to get our appetites going:
The server let us drink our cocktail at a leisurely pace before asking for our food order. Once we did place our order, an amuse bouche of small crostini with slightly baked cherry tomato halves were served with a bowl of Maldon sea salt. We were instructed to wake up our palates by adding a slight sprinkling of salt to the sweet tomato. Although the salt was left behind on the table for the duration of the dinner, we never touched it again as everything from the kitchen arrived perfectly seasoned:
Their wine list features a wide selection of international wines. We spotted this nicely aged 2003 Calabretta Etna Rosso, made with the Sicilian grapes Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese. Etna Rosso takes its name from Mount Etna, the most active volcano in Europe, where grapes have been cultivated for wine since the beginning of recorded history. Mount Etna provides two benefits: volcanic soil, which adds minerality, and elevation, which ripens the grapes more slowly in the sun-drenched Mediterranean climate. The typical blend of Nerello varietals yields a wine that is elegant, food-friendly, and a great bargain owing to its relative obscurity here in the US. Calabretto is a bit unique in that they age their wines considerably before release, making the 2003 their current offering. Kudos to NOPA for stocking it:
Their menu contains more than 20 items, and we found it very hard to narrow down the selection since we could have easily eaten the entire menu (not in one sitting of course). Many of the items were listed by just the ingredients, and we started with the Olive Oil Poached Albacore, Soft Cooked Egg, Potatoes, Olives and Green Beans dish, which turned out to be an excellent version of a deconstructed Salad Nicoise made with pristine ingredients:
We also like our “fries with eyes,” and the Little Fried Fish, Lemon and Basil Aioli featuring local anchovy lightly sprinkled with dill was an excellent version:
We had to order the Piggy Platter, which offered house-made trotter terrine, Tasso spiced ham and green chorizo sausage slices. We noticed that almost every plate arrives with some form of greens, which in this case was a deliciously bitter watercress salad with lightly pickled plums. It almost made the dish seem healthy, but we aren’t fooled that easily:
The Flatbread of House Smoked Bacon, Tomatoes, Gruyere and Horseradish is a house signature item. Instead of having the “pizza” arrive whole, the cut rectangles were artfully arranged and topped with a lightly dressed arugula and a spicy horseradish cream. We would happily return for this dish any day:
Their famous Grass Fed Hamburger, Pickled Onions and French Fries were served with a harissa aioli. We opted for Gruyere cheese as an addition, which sinfully smothered the burger patty:
We ordered the very tasty burger rare, and the very thick patty came perfectly cooked to our liking — which is a hard feat for grass-fed beef since they tend to continue cooking after coming off the grill:
At this point, we were too full for dessert and could only be tempted by an after dinner cocktail. We had spied the Lowland Dram (Glenkinchie 12yr Scotch, Dolin Blanc, Allspice Dram, Orange Twist) on the cocktail list earlier, and as Scotch drinkers we had to try it. Generally we are not big fans of diluting Single Malts, but the addition of the vermouth and bitters balanced well with the Scotch and made for a very pleasant after-dinner libation:
In keeping with the very local flavor, NOPA commissioned local artist Brian Barneclo to paint the restaurant murals depicting neighborhood scenes. This is a view of the mural located atop the stairs:
Curiously, we have also found that NOPA can be polarizing: some people feel that it is overpriced and not worth sorting through the crowds. However, there are a few people will swear that NOPA is the quintessential San Francisco restaurant, serving the City local and seasonal cuisine in a great atmosphere. It may have set the standard for many restaurants that followed, offering a wide selection of food and beverages at relatively decent price points. Like other restaurants, we know to make reservations far ahead and enjoy the overall experience.