Nopa is located at the corner on Divisadero and Hayes, north of the Panhandle. According to their website, they serve urban rustic food and specialize in organic wood-fired cuisine. As you would expect in SF, they source all ingredients from local purveyors. I wonder, do SF restaurants even need to say that anymore? I mean, is that the norm? I digress, the fact is that Nopa serves as the late night locale of choice for SF master chefs. It's ambiance is noisy upscale casual with a large ground floor dining area, expansive bar, and small mezzanine dining space. The clientele range from young professionals, to old money, to hipsters. Reservations can be made one month in advance; I would recommend making one because it's a tough ticket even with all the other dining options in SF.
We arrived a few mins before our 7:45pm reservation and decided to wait by the bar. The drinks are stiff - specializing in gins, bourbons, and rums - so order wisely. Our table was up on the mezzanine level, with a great view of the downstairs dining space. We informed our waitress that we were vegetarian and she promptly recommended several options to choose from. Overall, service was mediocre, I almost felt like the wait staff was just going through the motions rather than being attentive of the patrons. In any event, let's get to the food.
A few mins after being seated, we were given an amouse bouche of two apple slices with mint herbed yogurt. Simple but sumptuous, the apples were fresh and crispy, the yogurt earthy and slightly salty. A nice touch and a great way to start, it changes nightly as well.
First off, we ordered the fried brussels sprouts with lemon and pecorino. They arrived piping hot to the table and looked very appealing. However, I felt that they were way too salty - perhaps it was the natural qualities of the brussels sprouts, or the lemon juice, or the pecorino cheese - but I could only stomach a few bites. Sheila on the other hand loved this dish and felt there was a great balance of acidity from the lemon, saltiness from the cheese, earthiness from the sprouts. We agreed to differ in views and she went on to finish the dish.
Second, we ordered the warm goat's cheese, crostini, arugula, and shaved persimmons. the cheese was served in a small ramekin and the greens and fruit made up a side salad. Now this was a well balanced dish - spread the warm goat's cheese on the warm crostini, top of off with a shaved persimmon and arugula. It was different from all angles - warm yet cold, savory yet sweet, cream yet crunchy, fresh yet cooked. Okay now I understand why the big fuss about Nopa. The food is darn good, and more importantly...darn interesting.
Next, we decided to share the Moroccan vegetable tagine with almonds and lemon yogurt. The kitchen was kind enough to serve the dishes separately, which was another nice touch. The vegetables included eggplant, tomatoes, squash, and carrots - cooked perfectly Moroccan style in a tagine and in Nopa wood-fired oven. The spices were not overpowering so you could actually taste each vegetable, but hints of garlic, rosemary, oregano, and chili did come through. The cool yogurt was a perfect agent to quell those brief instances of heat. The almond gave an added element of texture and crunch, but I felt that there weren't enough of them in the dish. Portion size was just enough to share given that we ordered two starters.
Last, we ordered two desserts. Sheila opted for the sopaipillas with spiced hot chocolate. Basically fried dough covered in cinnamon and sugar. Each piece was light and fluffy and tasted quite good when dipped in the spicy bittersweet chocolate. However on it's own, Sheila noted that the sopaipillas tasted like they were fried in the same oil as the brussels sprouts. I didn't initially notice it, but after she made the comment I couldn't get passed it.
I opted for the pumpkin souffle cake with sage caramel and buttermilk sherbet. Like many of the dishes, this dessert had great balance and could have almost passed for a savory meal. The buttermilk sherbet was creamy but not overly sweet. The sage-infused caramel brought rustic element to the dish. The cake itself was a bit dense for my liking, but it's warm spicy undertones made up from the lake of airiness.
Our bill, including drinks was around $80, not bad considering the level of cuisine. Final verdict....I would come back for the atmosphere, drinks, and appetizers. Note that the pickings are slim for vegetarian entrees. However, the bar scene is happening and there's more room to graze than at Beretta or Wayfare Tavern. Let me know what YOU think?