Charles Phan at the Slanted Door changed the way we eat Vietnamese food in America. Bruce Cost at Monsoon and Barbara Tropp at China Moon did it with Chinese. Now Greg Dunmore is carrying on the tradition at Nojo with his own ingredient driven Japanese cooking that brings local and artisanal products to the ethnic table. Nojo, in fact, means farm in Japanese.
After cooking Japanese for years in America, he finally made it to Japan and ate his way up and down the country, from Sapporo to Fukuoka, developing a passion for cooked Japanese dishes and grilled skewers, essentially pub food. He noticed that many of the little places he liked so much were operated by families whose members pitched in and did everything. When Dunmore came back to San Francisco, he knew that he had to open an izakaya of his own.
At Nojo, he built a cool, contemporary, comfortable izakaya where he could cook in his own style, inspired by ingredients from his friends, the farmers. His simple, direct, big flavored, Japanese cooking radiates freshness and goodness–Japanese with Midwestern values. I’m not sure Japanese purists recognize it as their food, but it speaks to people like me– the seasonal and local food crowd, ethnic food explorers, Hayes Valley neighbors– all of whom, in all honesty, happen to be 30 years younger than me. Who cares? I feel at home there.
I can pop in alone and sit at a low counter right in front of the open kitchen. I like to start with pickles, spring tsukemono ($5.75), three lightly cured, fresh vegetables usually scented with an herb–shiso– or citrus–yuzu. Or I begin with a small bowl of local Hodo Soy organic tofu mashed with tiny mushrooms and sugar snap peas, delicately scented with fine sesame oil ($5.75).
As a meatball lover, I scan the list of grilled skewers for tsukune ($5.50), a big, coarsely chopped chicken meatball aromatic with herbs. On the side, a bright orange egg yolk standing tall in a pool of soy sauce, awaits demolition by chopstick. In goes the hot meatball and the salty egg turns into creamy sauce.
Dunmore shows his talent for cooked dishes with a heaping plate of falling-off-the-bone, fire-licked lamb riblets ($15.50), moistened with grilled spring onions and pea leaves. The crispy skin of a big, dewy filet of steelhead ($14.50), a salmon-colored trout, is glazed in wine-like white miso. The fish perches on fresh peas and delicate Japanese mushrooms. Any Austrian cook would envy Nojo’s tonkatsu ($14), the crunchiest, most succulent pork cutlet imaginable, with a pile of butter and soy sauteed baby bok choy.
His smaller hot dishes are just as voluptuous. Chawanmushi ($12), a mason jar of steamed custard with crab has big flavor from smoky dashi and green garlic. The sweetness and creaminess of fried chicken livers ($8) is balanced with sharp tokyo turnips and greens, and bacon vinaigrette. Fantastic.
In true izakaya style, the drinks, thoughtfully selected, complete the Nojo experience, along with just the kind of service that made Dunmore, an outsider, feel so at home in Japan. Nojo’s cooks and servers intermingle and everyone who works there knows everything about making us, the customers, happy.
Nojo, 231 Franklin (between Fell and Hayes), San Francisco
Contact: 415 896-4587; www.nojosf.com
Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Tuesday
Price range: $3.25 to $16
Recommended dishes: duck tsukune; chicken tsukune; fried chicken livers, chawanmushi, lamb riblets, pork tonkatsu, spring pickles, tofu, pea and mushroom salad, grilled tongue on skewer; black sesame ice cream sundae
Credit cards: Master Card, Visa
Reservations: for parties of 6 or more only; night-of call list