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Restaurants: Nojo, San Francisco

The barely year old Nojo is a labor of intense focus restaurant for the young chef/owner Greg Dunmore. After years as the chef de cuisine at Ame, the grand, swanky dining room of San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel, learning under the tutelage of one of the country’s pioneering East-West cuisine chefs Hiro Sone, Dunmore struck out on his own. Traveling through Japan, the humble, pristine quality of yakitori bars and izakayas (essentially Japanese gastropubs with less of a focus on pork belly) hit Dunmore and popped a light bulb above his head.

In Japan, thoughtful simplicity is paramount. Even at the premier sushi bars of Tokyo, the decor isn’t much more than a sculpture of a ram on the side (the case at Ishikawa) or a small lace curtain hiding the back kitchen (Mizutani, Jiro Ginza…). The sushi itself is about the most vivid ruby tunas, a technicolor orange to the sea urchin,  and a glistening snow white tako. This same principle, as Dunmore learned at Ame can be applied in opulent surroundings, but really makes its mark at the down to earth noodle bars, yakitori stands, and the like that make Japan such a wealth of culinary brilliance, without the extravagance and flash of new age, modern cooking, or old traditional European style gastronomy. In essence, Japan’s purity in cuisine is California cuisine except centuries older and wiser.

The yakitori and izakaya hybrid restaurant trend is in full launch phase nationwide, much like gastropubs beforehand and Mediterranean small plates before the nose to tail community popped up. Yet, it is hard to imagine a more dedicated, striving to be authentic izakaya than the one Dunmore has created fronting Franklin Street near San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. The space sports a handsome dining bar fronting the kitchen, with bright lights putting the focus of the room on the chefs. The tiny dining room is mostly for two tops, aside for the occasional large group where a host of two tops get put together (no reservations except for parties of 6 or more. tip: call ahead 1 hour ahead of time and you can most likely reserve a spot). The tinted windows give the dining room the awkward austerity that can also be sampled at Gary Danko. There is no waiting area per se at the door or a host stand, just show up and if you wait, it can be a tad off feeling pacing around in circles.

Like in Japan, the focus is on togetherness. It’s about bringing together the teamwork of chefs and service, the togetherness of friends and family dining together, and the fusion of focused, natural flavors, without that 1990’s cuisine mash-up trend known as fusion. There is a fair amount of Moosewood- Cheeseboard Collective- “we’re all in this together type of communal feeling” going on here.

Chicken Heart and Tsukune Skewers

Being a restaurant devoted to nojos (Japanese for farmers), a good sized section of the menu thanks today’s nojos, the celebrities for the evening. An evening at Nojo is indeed a lesson on nuanced, focused, simple combinations, along with a vocabulary tour of uncommon Japanese ingredients such as shungiku, shichimi, and umeboshi (pickled Japanese salt plums). The menu changes almost daily, with very few exceptions.

Spam Rice Ball

Hope that umeboshi makes an appearance as the flavoring for chilled somen noodles, stirred into an etheral briny creamy sauce from uni (sea urchin), with wasabi mustard sprouts. Umeboshi shows up again sometimes to accent a showcase piece of raw local halibut in a carpaccio dish with the crunch of fried legumes.

Possibly the highlight of a Nojo evening comes courtesy of a heavily California inspired charred little gem lettuce salad. Tender grilled beef tongue pairs like Young and Rice with pickled red onions. Just the right amount of a creamy, very miso heavy dressing and chunks of Japanese cucumber round out the stellar dish. It’s a perfect dish to represent Nojo: gutsy, bold, exotic, and clearly focused.

Charred Little Gems with Grilled Beef Tongue

You can always count on tempura of some sort, with a glistening batter encasing tree oyster mushrooms and spring onions one night, with a spizy ponzu mayonnaise. Fried chicken is an izakaya staple in Japan. Here, Dunmore serves the karaage of wings and drummies with meyer lemon and sansho, a fragrant spice with hints of lime. Gyoza are staples at Japanese restaurants nationwide as a filling add on to a sushi or ramen deal, yet receive prudent care when teamed with shitake mushrooms and a shoyu broth. The same can be set for many of Dunmore’s glistening, new wave but not absurd takes on classic Japanese dishes, whether fried chicken cutlet (katsu) in a tonkatsu sesame sauce or the egg custard chawanmushi with nameko mushrooms and manila clams. Even everyone’s favorite watery soup, miso soup, gets spruced up to exciting levels with wakame seaweed, maitake mushrooms, and tofu from Oakland’s tofu.

Umeboshi Somen with Uni

One staple of the restaurant is white miso glazed trout that was the slightly underwhelming offer of the evening. The fish was beautifully flaky, but the marinade needed to infuse the fish better to achieve the same provocative flavor of many other miso glazed fish preparations. Instead, the marinade was oily and barely detectable. On the yakitori side, tsukune (chicken meatballs) were somewhat tasteless with again a soy suace mixed with an egg yolk that did nothing to excite the sauce or the meatballs.

Of the many enticing yakitori preparations, tender, not chewy chicken hearts, are most spectacular, especially with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of sansho. Do sample the spam (made in house) rice ball with scallions and a nori sauce, an example of how spam can be a positive ingrdient. Of course there are always duck necks with tare, chicken skin with matcha sea salt, and bacon wrapped scallions too to go with the tidy, select list of shochus, sake (try the excellent deal on the Otokoyama), wine, and beers such as Dying Vines Old Brick Bitter from Oakland.

White Miso Glazed Trout

Every table orders the pièce de résistance, the Nojo Sundae. A far cry from watermelon slices or green tea ice cream like at most sushi bars and izakayas, here Humphry Slocombe’s black sesame ice cream comes topped with candied kumquats and one of the year’s great inventions: thunder crackers (peanuts coated by rice crispies and caramelized, yes they pop and roar like thunder when chewed). Dessert isn’t much more homey than this, at the same time being exquisite. Or a comforting chocolate caramel pudding with matcha cream to close is another option. If the sundae weren’t so life-changing, I’d go for the buckwheat & beer crepes with a ginger-musovado syrup, strawberry-rhubarb compote, and white miso ice cream. But that dish doesn’t have thunder crackers in it.

Nojo Sundae

So many options, such challenging decisions. The one piece of advice I’d give in that regard is to veer more towards the “not on a stick” side of the menu to sample more of Dunmore’s creativity and talent. Then again, you can’t miss the chicken hearts or the spam rice ball. There is a lunch too earning rave reviews for yakisoba and chicken karaage sandwiches, or Sunday brunch with its ramen and French toast in Kinako butter.

Service is excellent, far more helpful and glad to see diners joining them than almost anywhere else in the city. It must be the kikubari spirit Dunmore strives for at Nojo, mingling the front of the house and the kitchen into one community, and the diners as if they are family friends. I didn’t experience any of the chefs delivering dishes or waiters cooking, but teamwork was in full display and fully appreciated.

Dunmore has a beautiful izakaya going, where worries are left outside, and diners are led on a reflective adventure. After dining at Nojo, you’ll understand why every neighborhood in Japan strives to have a local izakaya. It is a truly basic, yet brilliant concept. Nojo takes the izakaya to another level.

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