San Francisco Chronicle

few achieve this elusive status

SAN FRANCISCO'S NOPA MAKES NORTH OF THE PANHANDLE A FOOD DESTINATION
by Michael Bauer

A great restaurant is a cultural incubator. The establishment is the seed, and what grows up around it helps define the neighborhood. It generally takes time, dedication and owners who know the area intimately.

The newly opened NOPA, which stands for North of the Panhandle, is already in this category. It's barely 3 months old, but is catching on quickly.

Like Zuni, it's a place that not only defines the neighborhood, but also becomes a salon for its customers.

Hundreds of excellent restaurants can be found throughout the Bay Area, but few achieve this elusive status. What sets NOPA apart is an amalgamation of elements that isn't easy to explain -- but I'll try.

1. Chef-owner Laurence Jossel, who has worked at Chez Nous and Chow, is passionate about his craft, and it shows in his exceptional offerings. The California-Mediterranean dishes may not be groundbreaking, but they're the type many people like to eat night after night -- chicken, spit-roasted beef and fish stew. Ingredients are mostly organic, the kitchen always delivers more than expected, and prices are reasonable -- main courses top out at $20

2. The restaurant is a grassroots operation, and the hands-on management can be felt at every level. Jossel and his fiancee, Allyson Woodman, own the restaurant with Jeff Hanak, one of the former owners of Chow who is now in charge of NOPA's first-rate wine list.

3. The modern, casual interior adds another layer of excitement. It's always buzzing, although at times the noise rating can be a double bomb because of the stylish high ceilings with exposed beams and trusses, the polished concrete floor and the large plate-glass windows that overlook Hayes and Divisadero streets.

4. The owners have made great efforts to celebrate the neighborhood. They hired Brian Barneclo, who lives two doors down from the restaurant, to create the mural that graces the entrance and the side wall over the mezzanine. Designer James Lagoc, who lives a few blocks away, also pays homage to the space's past life as a bank. In fact, the old bank vault is a perfect 56 degrees and is used for wine storage. One side of the 110-seat restaurant is devoted to the bar, with 20 seats at the polished concrete counter and a large communal table -- design elements that enhance the already festive mood. The crowd is as eclectic as the area. There are loads of young professionals, artists who adopted the area before it became cool and a few older residents who have called the neighborhood home for decades.

5. The servers, under the guidance of Woodman, who has worked at Chow and Zuni, know what they're doing, yet still maintain a relaxed attitude.

6. Jossel's menu is superb. Did I mention that before? It deserves to be mentioned again, because his lusty cooking gives the place its soul.

Jossel places his new J and R rotisserie in the place of honor in the front of the open kitchen, and treats it like his firstborn. It's manufactured by the same company that produced the spit at Oliveto; at NOPA, you'll always see up to 18 chickens slowly turning above asparagus or other vegetables on the grill, alongside fresh-ground hamburgers dripping their luscious fat onto the almond wood below.

The crew not only brines the birds, but also tucks fresh herbs under the skin. In the same vein as Zuni and LuLu, Jossel serves a half chicken ($17) with spring greens, drizzling mustard vinaigrette over the salad and the bird. The spit is also used for the smoked-kissed London broil ($19) that's accented with horseradish cream and a mound of mashed potatoes.

The grill under the rotisserie can also take credit for producing one of the best pork chops ($18) around: Almond wood accentuates the thick chop's natural sweetness, and it's served with braised greens and creamy-tender flageolets.

Another prime spot in the open-air kitchen is a wood-burning oven that is capped with an enormous stainless steel hood . From there comes a marvelous casserole of runner beans with a touch of tomato, feta and oregano ($8). The oven also turns out a delicious flatbread topped with sausage, broccoli di cicco and red onions ($9). It's cut in irregular pieces and arranged helter-skelter on the plate, looking casual but bountiful.

Fish stew ($18) resembling a New Age bouillabaisse is also baked in the oven. The base is made with leeks, onions and fennel sweated with saffron and other spices to form a thick paste. To that, Jossel adds white wine, fish fumet, tomatoes, braised fennel, potatoes and various fish such as rock cod, halibut, sturgeon and calamari. The stew is heaped into a large bowl and served with a large grilled crouton. The portion looks so generous you'd swear you couldn't possibly finish it, but before long you're looking at an empty bowl wanting more.

Although it was equally delicious, I couldn't finish the Moroccan tagine ($16), the only vegetarian option among the seven main courses. It includes potatoes, turnips, garlic, beets, artichokes and favas along with garbanzo beans, almonds, mild green chiles and a symphonic play of spices. Items are added in stages, so there's a complex layer of flavors, cooled by a dollop of lemon yogurt.

The kitchen is equipped with three fryers -- one for the thick-cut fries that are among the best in the city, another for the crunchy little fried fish ($8) served with refreshing paper-thin slices of fennel and a romesco sauce for dipping, and a third for desserts.

Few kitchens I know of can grill, wood-roast and fry, another indication that the food is at the heart of this operation. While the execution is fantastic, the menu reads somewhat predictably.

The greatest hits include carpaccio, but here it's halibut ($9) drizzled with California olive oil and little sprigs of wild arugula. Sprinkle on a little of the coarse Maldon salt brought to the table with an amuse when you sit down, and if you're like me, you'll be captivated by its simplicity and freshness.

Equally light and refreshing are the salads, either mixed greens with sherry-walnut vinaigrette ($6) or Sweet Gem lettuces with oranges, radishes and a creamy tarragon dressing ($7).

One of my favorite starters is the baked goat cheese ($9) served in a little crock, mild and creamy with a small salad of frisee, wedges of pickled beets and a generous fan of small crostini, a perfect spreading platform for the warm, tangy cheese.

Many dishes could easily be served at a place that charges practically twice as much and still be relished, including a smooth cauliflower soup ($7), a silken broth strikingly garnished with roasted garlic and a flurry of chopped fresh thyme. Pan-seared sturgeon ($19) brings lightly browned fillets topped with tarragon gremolata and surrounded by a melange of asparagus, peas, artichokes and delicate leaves of fresh tarragon. The sauce, made with chicken stock, herbs and butter, brings out the dish's seasonal essence.

Julie Antone's desserts (all $7) are created with the same care and rustic sensibility as the savory courses. My favorite is the Bellwether sheep's milk ricotta served warm drizzled with honey and slices of toasted walnut bread. The cheese's mild sweetness and bread's nuttiness combine for a grand ending.

For something a little sweeter, there's the bourbon creme brulee with incredible pecan shortbreads; a cooling strawberry Champagne trifle layered with whipped cream; and a rhubarb crostata with a great crust, a hint of ginger and mounds of whipped cream. The only dessert that disappointed was the warm spiced doughnut holes.

Yet there's so much to love, all you want to do is to sit back and be pampered, which brings us to the final reason that NOPA stands apart from much of its competition.

7. Even before you get to the end of the meal, you realize that this is truly your lucky day. NOPA's wines take tour through Europe What better way to store wine than in a bank vault? Jeff Hanak has found a great way to reuse this feature of NOPA's space, and he's crafted a list that's both fairly priced and unexpected for the casual nature of the restaurant. The 130-item selection is heavy with European varietals that match the California/Mediterranean food. Even the California bottles tend toward a more restrained, elegant style. Take the Pinot Noir section: There's representation from Savigny, Marsannay, Gevrey-Chambertin, Anderson Valley, Oregon, Marin and the Santa Rita Hills. The Italian varietals are first- rate, with selections such as 2002 Terlano La Grein "Greis" from Alto Adige ($41) and the 2003 Notaio Aglianico del Vulture "Repertoire" ($43) from Basilicata. While you'll find a good selection of the ever-popular Chardonnay, there's an even better selection of wines from Alsace, Germany and Austria, and the Loire Valley. NOPA could also become known as the home of the $6 cocktail, increasingly a rarity at trendy restaurants. For that price, you can get the 20th Century Cocktail, a blend of gin, Lillet, lemon juice and a splash of white creme de cacao, or the elderflower gimlet with vodka, lime juice and elderflower syrup. Other cocktails are usually $7 to $8. Nightly drink specials are offered, and the bar highlights different spirits each month. In June, it's artisan pot-stilled gin used for the martinis, Gibsons, Aviations and Negronis (all $8). The restaurant also features a dozen wines by the glass, an interesting list of dessert wines, two draft beers ($4.25) and nine bottles ($3.75-$6.25). If you bring your own wine, corkage is $15.

-- M.B.

Michael Bauer is The Chronicle's restaurant critic. You can e-mail him at mbauer@sfchronicle.com and read his blog, Between Meals, at sfgate.com.

Dinner 6 p.m.-1 a.m. nightly. Full bar. Same-day reservations accepted after 2 p.m. Difficult street parking.

Overall: THREE STARS Food: THREE STARS Service: THREE STARS Atmosphere: THREE STARS Prices: $$ Noise Rating: BOMB Pluses: A real gem that reflects the gestalt of the neighborhood. Friendly, professional service, comfortable detailed surroundings and exceptional food. Among the best french fries in the city. Superb wine list. Minuses: Depending where you sit, the noise can be distracting

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nopa
560 Divisadero Street @ Hayes
San Francisco, CA 94117
Phone 415.864.8643