There’s no doubt that the Japanese izakaya is the new pizzeria in San Francisco. A lot of new restaurants or plans for new restaurants play on the model of Japanese small bites from the grill.
One that takes it up a notch is the fairly new Nojo, a corner restaurant on the ground floor of a gleaming new condominium in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. Helmed by Chef Greg Dunmore, formerly chef de cuisine at Ame, the menu is simple with touches of California seasonal ingredients.
The food is showcased in a beautiful 45-seat dining room with a long bar that puts the chefs front and center like a sushi bar (but behind glass). It’s at the bar that I had dinner with my friend Kim, getting a close-up view of the artful cooking skills of the team.
Because Kim is a Pescatarian, we both ordered our own dishes although I did end up eating mostly vegetarian and seafood dishes. The dishes, from sections called “Not on a stick” and “on a stick” (the traditional skewers of izakayas), came beautifully plated like what you’ll find served at fine-dining establishments.
For example, Kim’s halibut carpaccio ($11.50) was sparkling with fresh slices of raw fish accented with bright-green edamame and radish sprouts arranged like dancing flowers. Kim also enjoyed the ponzu sauce dressing the fish.
I was excited about my order of a tomato chawanmushi ($9.50) and was blown away by the pristine custard in a gorgeous cup and plate. But the tart tomatoes (in the heart of summer?) gave an off taste to the overall custard despite its creamy texture.
Several of my dishes had an off taste, like the beef tongue that was slightly dry and tasted metallic. Or the sautéed squid ($8) that lacked the searing I like to bring out more of the seafood flavor instead of the soft texture of almost-rare squid.
Kim probably had more luck with her orders, enjoying not just the halibut but the miso soup ($8), a huge bowl filled with pieces of summer squash, Nameko mushrooms and tofu.
Nojo, in a quaint neighborhood that continues to grow and attract restaurants, seems like a big draw as demonstrated by the steady flow of people coming in and waiting for tables (they don’t take reservations). With friendly service and a lovely space, the restaurant is headed for success. But the high prices, to me, and slight off flavors of certain dishes keep Nojo from being a star.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
Nojo, 231 Franklin St. (at Linden), San Francisco. PH: 415.896.4587. Open daily (except Tuesday) from 5 to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). No reservations, except parties of 6 or more. www.nojosf.com