Dining in SF: NOPA

NOPA stands for “North of the Panhandle,” the neighborhood north of the pan-handle shaped easternmost stretch of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It is also a restaurant located in that neighborhood. Focusing on California-Mediterranean cuisine, NOPA delivers a menu that isn’t staggeringly original but it does deliver dishes made with great attention to quality and detail. They describe themselves as serving “urban rustic cuisine” with an emphasis on organic wood-fired food. We had dinner there with another couple and enjoyed the experience.

The atmosphere inside the restaurant is lively but not unbearably loud. Located on the corner of Divisadero and Hayes Streets, the large windows look out on the bustling city and let in lots of afternoon light. A large communal table is located near the entry and the bar, a comfortable place to have a drink and wait for your table.

The main dining room is a combination of booths and tables, again with lots of light. The open kitchen is at the back of the restaurant with the large wood burning oven visible to all. Service was friendly but not intrusive. I didn’t feel like the server was constantly hovering over my shoulder.

An amuse bouche of asparagus tips and sea salt. Simple, right? Perfectly ripe asparagus, gently cooked to bring out what’s best about them. Nice to see an amuse bouche that didn’t look like a sculpture or piece of modernist art. Instead, the chef let the ingredient speak for itself.

An appetizer of warm goat’s cheese with Asian pear and fuyu persimmon, with crostini on the side. Really nice combination of flavors, very rich, and much too satisfying.

A casserole of wood baked butter beans with feta cheese, tomato sauce, oregano pesto, and bread crumbs. Hearty and very flavorful.

The rotisserie chicken with bok choy rapini, quinoa, golden raisins and romesco sauce. Rotisserie chicken is present on so many menus and yet so often it fails to inspire, often having rubbery skin and bland, mushy flesh. Not the case at all with this flavorful chicken with crisp skin.  

Grilled pork chop with Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, and maple-date butter. Just as with the chicken, the meat had a lot of flavor and remained nice and moist.

Flatbread of spicy fennel sausage, pickled onions, goat’s cheese, and chicory. Good example of how on the one hand the menu offers nothing particularly new but manages to deliver some really wonderful food. Another observation: all of the dishes are nicely plated without being artistic and overbearing. 

The first of the three desserts we shared was a chocolate mousse with praline cream, biscotti, and candied orange peel. It was a very nice version of a common dessert, rich chocolate flavor, not heavy, and complimented by the praline cream and orange peel.

The second dessert was a Meyer lemon curd tart with buttermilk ice cream and candied thyme. Again, a common, very simple that can be so-so or surprisingly good. This was the second sort of tart, bright and refreshing.

Final dessert: Sopaipillas (similar to beignets or doughnuts) served with a cinnamon vanilla caramel. Light, not the least bit oily, and very enjoyable to eat.

The overall experience was a positive one. NOPA does the basics very well and at a price that, for San Francisco, is pretty reasonable. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that NOPA is just as good as its spin-off restaurant, Nopalito, that I visited last year. While the menus are entirely different, the core commitment to quality, value, and attention to detail is consistent.