Tucked away in a small storefront on Castro, three year old Contigo casts a net much wider than its immediate Noe Valley neighborhood. Eaters from all over the city make the pilgrimage to this smart little dining room, aglow with hand crafted natural wood furnishings, including stools in front of the open kitchen and a tiny wine bar. Spending an evening at Contigo nibbling on bite size tapas and shareable raciones with glasses of Spanish wine, can transport anyone to urbane, modern Spain. But the trip starts in San Francisco, at farmers’ markets and local artisanal producers, where Contigo’s owners, Brett and Elan Emerson get their ingredients. The food at Contigo is radiant because it is so fresh.
Emerson’s own interpretation of tapas plays a big part in Contigo’s charm. His unfussy cooking may take inspiration from the products in his hands, but his dishes come off soulfully Spanish.
Contigo’s tapas ($2 to $3 for each piece) are better than most of the ones I find splayed across bars in Barcelona. Toasts mounded with soft, creamy, house made cheese perfectly set up lightly cured Cantabrian anchovies. Wood oven roasted sardines filets meld with avocado, pickled onions and smoked salt on bite sized toasts. Divine. Long toothpicks skewered with tender, smoky rounds of octopus, potato and a silky cooked Spanish pepper are meant to slide into your mouth at one time. Everything works together.
Raciones are for sharing, though I could easily eat my own plate of larger toasts slathered with mashed spring peas, translucent slices of Spanish ham and shards of Idiazabal, smoky though not smoked sheep cheese, with a juicy snap pea salad on the side. Contigo’s mini-creations use smokiness from many sources as a seasoning. Sweet Sacramento Delta asparagus ($13) are charred and scattered with shavings of mojama, sun dried tuna loin, and smoked paprika-dusted almonds. The final touch: lubrication with an olive oil fried egg.
Don’t miss tender little squid bodies filled with salty Spanish sausage roasted in the wood burning oven on a bed of butter beans and breadcrumbs ($13). I had to use crusts of a paper thin flatbread, voluptuously layered with nettles, bacon, ricotta and manchego ($15), to scrape up the juices. And piquillo peppers, about the size of the calamari bodies, get a stuffing of shredded oxtail with almonds, rice and raisins ($14), so classic, so piquant, so luscious. You do not have to fret about feeling satisfied after a meal of bites at Contigo. Though the menu is not long, you will not be able to exhaust it.
But do have a light, elegant, and evocatively Spanish dessert. Hot, crispy fritters ($4) seem to float off the plate, perhaps into a cup of thick hot chocolate ($4). A powerful coffee flan, dense and creamy, might keep you up all night ($8). The flavors and textures of bright pixie tangerine sorbet and lemon basil gelato do a flamenco together ($8), but without syncopation from a soggy alfajor–a caramel filled sandwich cookie.
Wines by the glass are not cheap and the pours not large. Ordering a bottle makes better sense, though maybe not as much fun. But don’t worry about fun. There’s such a convivial spirit at this place, emanating from staff and fellow diners, so closely seated, and the cooks visible in the open kitchen, that you feel embraced, by a family, a community. You can drop in alone and sit in front of the kitchen; or reserve with a group and sit outside on the heated patio and garden. Everything seems to flow just right at Contigo. Everything comes together.
1320 Castro Street, San Francisco
Contact: 415 285-0250; www.contigosf.com