Serious Eats

Apps Only: Nopa in San Francisco

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Grilled calamari. [Photographs: Maggie Hoffman]

When I first moved to San Francisco after college, I had the good fortune of living a few blocks away from Nopa. The restaurant, often credited with remaking (and re-naming) the Western Addition neighborhood, was a fitting re-entry to the glories of California cuisine: an emphasis on seasonal produce, close ties to local farms, and a casual, come-as-you-are vibe.

Now that Drinks editor Maggie has set up shop in California, it seemed like the perfect time to bring her to one of my favorite spots, along with Sweets editor and fellow San Francisco resident, Carrie.

While I'm convinced that anything you order from their oft-changing menu is likely to be delicious, something I particularly love about the restaurant is their ample selection of sharable starters and sides. This is not a restaurant where making an Apps Only meal is a challenge; rather, sometimes it's hard to talk myself into the pricier main courses when I know I can leave full and happy sticking strictly to the "small plates" side of the menu.

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While the menu certainly does change, there are a few staple items that you're likely the find in one form or another. The little fried fish ($11) is one of those. Whole quick-fried anchovies are served with a smokey, pepper-laden Romesco sauce. The fish were strikingly delicate, flaking apart and entirely lacking in the briny, pungent flavor so often associated with the anchovy. I missed the intensity, but these make for an excellent conversion tool for those wary of anchovies generally.

Grilled calamari ($12) was the show-stealer of the evening. Served atop a light avocado cream and tossed with purslane, cucumbers, and crisp spiced chickpeas, the tender rounds of squid were texturally perfect - smooth and snappy, without a trace of rubbery chew. The hint of char on the squid paired nicely with the chickpeas, the smokey flavor particularly rich when eating pieces of tendril.

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An Early Girl tomato salad ($10) showcased the vegetable at its sweet, high-season best. Studded with milky, fresh mozzarella and oil-soaked garlic croutons, the salad was a touch too oily, but that didn't stop us from polishing it off. The rich sweetness of the tomatoes and aged vinegar was nicely countered by plump, salt-rich olives.

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Slice correspondent David Kover has touched on Nopa's flatbread ($15) before, but it's worth a second mention. As starters go, this one is ample; you could easily make a meal of it (and I have, more than once, showed up at Nopa around 12:30 for a cocktail and an order of flatbread). Of course, the rotating toppings mean that not all flatbreads are created equal, but we lucked out on this particular visit (the crisp, buttery-but-not-greasy crust was spot-on, too). Rich, smokey bacon lent a dominant flavor note, well-balanced by crescenza cheese, escarole, and garlic. Just-roasted whole cherry tomatoes dotted the surface, bursting with a sweet acidity to counter the rich base.

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Lest you get fully caught up in the appetizer side of the menu, let me take this opportunity to remind you of Nopa's excellent, generously-portioned sides. Namely, their grilled broccoli ($6), a fresh, crisp rendering dressed liberally with lemon and coated with anchovy-laced breadcrumbs. "Almost unexpectedly good," we decided, while discussing the merits of just ordering the broccoli side for dinner (definitely doable, though I'd want to put a poached egg on mine).

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The french fries ($6) are worth ordering, too. Medium-cut and delicately fried, the fries showcase the fresh flavor of potato, and are well-salted enough to still be addictive. The dips served with the fries change: I've seen harissa aioli, a basil mayonnaise, and now, a red pepper feta dip. The feta lent a wonderful salt and creaminess without the slick of a mayonnaise-based dip, and quickly disappeared.

All told, we clocked in around $20 per person. Is this steep for an apps-only meal? Maybe. Though I'd argue that considering how full we left, and Nopa's repute for great food, it's still a pretty great deal.

Nopa

560 Divisadero Street, San Francisco CA 94117 (map)
415-864-8643; nopasf.com

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