Meeting a friend you’ve only known online can be a nervous affair. Will you get along? Will they be cool in person? What if they have a funny voice and a big nose? When the moment comes and they turn out to be even more fabulous than you’d hoped, the elation feels like a glassful of Champagne… or cava in this case.
Elation was definitely the order of the evening Saturday night when we finally met Contigo, the new Spanish restaurant from our friend, Chef Brett Emerson. If you’re a fan of his blog, In Praise of Sardines, you’re probably familiar with the saga of Contigo’s opening, from the thrill of Brett’s snagging of a rare new-restaurant permit in Noe Valley, through the agony of multiple construction delays. I don’t know how Brett feels, but after tasting his food at a friends-and-family dinner before Contigo’s formal opening, I think all the drama was all worth it.
The space is beautiful, simultaneously contemporary and cozy. It’s not large, but it feels expansive thanks to five distinct dining zones — chef’s counter, lower dining room, cava bar, upper dining room, and a heated, covered outdoor patio surrounded by herb gardens.
Contigo’s ingredients are locally sourced, but not slavishly so — there’s jamón from Spain (and Iowa), alongside meat and vegetables from the usual assortment of local farms. And the food on the plate is every bit the equal of its gorgeous environment. We had a devil of a time deciding what to order; everything sounded appealing. Like an Iberian version of our favorite SPQR, Contigo offers an assortment of small pica-pica plates ($8 each, or $21 for three). Venerable tapas like crisp patatas bravas and marinated sardines take their place alongside an assortment of salads with Spanish twists. In the latter category, we loved the remojon: salt cod, oranges, and olives atop white radicchio.
We tried a couple of larger platillos as well. The juidones a la segovia were a dreamy assortment of delectable pork parts (belly, ears, yum!) atop creamy butter beans. The chorizo-y txistorra burger was fabulous, but be ready to share it with a friend; it’s too good to miss, but a little too rich to eat as an entree.
We weren’t sure how we managed to save room for dessert, but we were happy we did. We made short work of the not-too-sweet almond cake, filled with a dollop of pastry cream and a schmear of olallieberry preserves, a sweet nod to the restaurant’s history.
Contigo opens tonight, and there’s sure to be a line; reservations are accepted only for parties of 6 or more. But there’s a stand-up drink rail along the entryway, where you can enjoy a glass of cava and a nibble or two while watching the cooks work their magic in the beautiful open kitchen.
Contigo Kitchen + Cava
1320 Castro Street (x 24th Street)
San Francisco, CA 94114
The food took forever to come out. It wasn’t good when it arrived. The servers were tripping over each other. There was a waiting list as long as your arm at 9:15 on a Sunday morning.
But hang up the sarcasm phone for a second and listen: we’re really, really pulling for Toast Eatery, a contemporary diner recently opened in Baja Noe Valley.
Ever since we finally threw up our hands over Al’s Cafe Good Food on Mission street, we’ve been longing for a good breakfast place that didn’t require a visit to the peninsula. Anita had been hearing about Toast’s debut so we planned an early (for us) attack on the corner of Church and Day streets.
We were completely unsuccessful in beating the crowds that inevitably surround any halfway-viable brunch joint in Noe Valley. The interior isn’t large, but Toast boasts a number of sidewalk tables. A little flexibility bought a significantly shortened wait for seating: we scored two stools at the bar, a choice that paid dividends later in the meal. The interior is invitingly painted and tiled, and sports cute light fixtures and accoutrements. It’s a clean, well-lighted place for grinds.
The menu at Toast could be taken from any one of a million diners across the nation: scrambles, omelets, pancakes, french toast, eggs benedict, corned beef hash, and chicken fried steak. Lunch/dinner options include soups, salads, burgers, and sandwiches, with plenty of traditional favorites: french dip, club sandwich, cheese steak, hot pastrami, and chili.
We chatted with one of the proprietors who was running herd on the front of the house and handling the counter traffic. I asked if they had real maple syrup, and he said that they were planning on adding it for an extra charge, but they hadn’t yet. Major points. I encouraged him to follow through. In my book, real maple syrup is one of the simple things that a breakfast joint can do to rise above the crowd. I’m happy to pay the extra buck, and I won’t order pancakes without it.
The servers were obviously still getting their act together, but everyone was hustling and mostly friendly. Anita ordered chicken fried steak and some orange juice, while I went for eggs benedict and coffee.
Half an hour later we’d finished the Sunday paper, I was on my third cup of coffee (not bad tasting, nice big cups), and we were hungry. When the food finally appeared, it became clear that the kitchen is still getting its act together, too. The hollandaise was a strange dark brown color, watery, grainy, and inedibly salty—as if it was made from a mix and someone used a cup of powder instead of a tablespoon. Anita’s food was no better: Sysco battered steak patty cooked with zero love and covered in gravy from a mix. Our hashbrowns were just barely cooked. Finally, in a barely believable bit of irony, the english muffins on both our plates were completely…wait for it…unToasted.
I complained (nicely) about the benedict and our seating choice paid off. The man in charge got instant feedback, and I was quickly supplied with a replacement (bagel with lox and cream cheese). Anita struggled through her plate, as there wasn’t anything returnably wrong with it. The scrambled eggs weren’t bad, at least.
We’ll almost certainly return, for two reasons. First, we badly need this kind of place nearby. With the exception of Joe’s Cable Car, it’s impossible to get a non-ethnic meal in our neck of the woods for less than $70 (for two) that doesn’t suck five different kinds of ass…and even then you’re taking your chances. Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack doesn’t count because you have to be on the ice to score and if you don’t take credit cards, you get to stay in the penalty box. Plus you can end up waiting for an hour for a table if you don’t whack someone first.
The second reason that we’ll return is that I think the folks at Toast have their heads on straight and they’re very obviously still sorting out their kitchen. The response to my complaint was fast, professional, and there was genuine interest in what went wrong. Plus, there were lots of positive little we’re-paying-attention details: organic, Fair Trade coffee served from thermal carafes instead of left cooking on burners; a small, low-end, but intelligent wine selection; very cool silverware; and, of course, real maple syrup on the way.
No guarantees (witness the continued incompetence and eventual fall of Chez Maman Bernal), but consider this review a bug report and give Toast a try after they’ve had a chance to pump through a few release candidates.
If you’re looking for a review of Perbacco restaurant in the Financial District, we’ve got one of those, too. (Psst, click HERE.) But below you’ll find a review of Bacco in Noe Valley.
Cameron’s sister and brother-in-law were visiting last week, taking a slightly circuituitous route from their old home in London to their new one in NYC. Since we’d had a bit of a delay rounding up a babysitter for our favorite niece, all of the city hotspots were long since booked for a Friday-night celebration at anything resembling a decent dinner hour.
And so, like we’ve done so many times before, we turned to Ristorante Bacco, another one of our perennial faves. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: We can never understand why we’re able to walk in without reservations on weeknights, and snag prime-time seats on OpenTable even at the last minute.
It may be a cliché, but Bacco really does feel like a neighborhood restaurant in Italy: great European-style service, well-prepared food with a seasonal vibe, and warm ambiance without a hint of pretension. All of the waiters are Italian, and their European approach is evident: they’re not just here while they write their screenplay or find their next tech job; they’re professional waiters who know a lot about food (and wine) in general, and Bacco’s menu in particular.
The decor is cozy and Tuscan-ish in a manner that verges on caricature: Large smooth terracotta tiles set on a diagonal covering the floor, color-washed walls, long/heavy curtains, and bas-relief sculptures of Bacchus and his nymphs.
The menu changes seasonally, but many items remain year-round. Unless you’ve spent your life eating at Olive Garden, Bacco’s not going to change the way you think about Italian food. But that’s not really the issue: We come here — as you should — expecting good food, simply prepared.
Appetizers cover a wide range: there’s usually a soup (often bland and forgettable), a special salad (usually one of the best choices; they sound more boring than they turn out), and some seasonal small plate.
In the pasta section, our old favorites include a rigatoni dish with lamb ragu and tiny peas. The usual assortments of meat-centric entrees are workmanlike (and more expensive) and generally not quite as interesting as the pastas. But if you see something that catches your eye, go for it: all of them use top-notch ingredients and are prepared just as they should be.
Desserts — panna cotta, affogato, tiramisu and the like — are satisfying, if neither particularly innovative nor seasonally inspired. The wine list offers a small assortment of California reds and whites, plus a larger selection of Italian varietals; all are reasonably priced.
737 Diamond Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
Boy, did we have a blast this weekend… so much so that I’ve been too beat to blog.
Saturday found us in the usual place: Breakfast at Primavera — ack! no chilaquiles? I suppose migas are close enough — then a long wander around the Farmers’ Market. Highlights included taste-testing about a gazillion peaches (oooo… Frog Hollow didn’t make the cut), looking far and wide for the best heirloom tomatoes, having an excuse to splurge on burrata at Cowgirl, discovering the previously mentioned tri-tip of luv at Prather, and scooping up the weekly bag of gloriously bacony avocados from Brokaw … mmm, mm!
Back south again with a stop at In-N-Out Burger en route to Target and the Colma BevMo for their big Grand Reopening sale (had to use that $10-off-$40 coupon!). Then back home, for a bit of prep cut short by realizing that we’d forgotten a few things… Off to Noe Valley on a “bourbon and bouquets” run, stopping at French Tulip — where we ran into Sean, quelle surprise — for hydrangeas and such, then on to Urban Cellars for a shockingly overpriced bottle of Knob Creek.
Whew. No wonder I’m tired… that sounds exhausting. But at the time, it felt like a nice and leisurely preparation for the dinner party we hosted on Saturday evening, jokingly (but accurately) called “bounty of the market, plus cheese”.
As our guests arrived, we started with a round of Currier cocktails on the back deck, accompanied by gorgonzola-and-peach bruschetta from the Ferry Building cookbook. Moving to the table, we paired a surprisingly affordable Yalumba ‘Y Series’ viognier with a salad of heirloom tomatoes, rosemary salt, burrata, and toasted pain-de-mie breadcrumbs (photo, above).
For the main course… there goes that tri-tip again, offered with a side of our friend Wendy’s luxurious penne-and-cheese, the winner of a recent mac-n-cheese cookoff among our old Seattle crew, and a Galante Vineyards Carmel Valley cabernet. (We won’t talk about the haricots verts that we forgot to serve… oops.)
Dessert was easy but good: We stole a page from our friends Russ & Nick’s dessert tricks, sweetening mascarpone with honey… which we then drizzled over Ciao Bella grapefruit-Campari sorbetto, topped with a few perfect raspberries. Then coffee in the living room, served with a platter of kumquats and shortbread, and another of madeleines and macarons from Miette, and some Recchiuti fleur de sel caramels.
Hard to imagine we had the strength to get up the morning after such a glorious evening, but shopping waits for no woman! Another early stop at JoAnn’s en route to Toys ‘R’ Us — our niece is on her West Coast tour and must have Dora! — then home for a quick nap before the family arrived. Thank goodness we have an appreciative audience for our leftover mac and cheese.