Once not very long ago, after I finished a bowl of morning oatmeal, I finally decided that I was serious about wanting to write my first restaurant review.
For months or years I have had the idea that San Francisco’s Nopa is the best restaurant in the United States. I have also, each time that notion has occurred to me, considered how loaded a thing that is to say. Is there anyone who doesn’t work for the James Beard Foundation who ever makes such a suggestion? Moreover, I run a restaurant myself. Aren’t restaurateurs supposed to keep to themselves and only murmur faint praise occasionally for other establishments?
Still, I feel as though I have a right to my opinion. I’ve been working in restaurants for 25 years, and I’ve seen a few things, and I’ve now done the ordering and the managing and everything else for several years now, and it shouldn’t seem so surprising that I might be inclined to write a restaurant review. I’ve heard it said that good restaurant critics see and feel everything from the minute they walk through the door. I haven’t ever written restaurant criticism until now, but I certainly feel sensitive to the way restaurants run. I know whether it’s twenty-five seconds or eight minutes before someone asks me if I want something to drink. I often have a feeling quickly about whether employees seem to like their jobs. Food prepared with focus and vision and touch stands out to me. I know what a wine list built for quick profit looks like.
Whether it’s a good idea for me to write restaurant reviews is another question. A negative review, you might be thinking if you have a mind for marketing, might not be a good idea. Have you heard of the successful restaurateur who went around saying how lousy everyone else’s restaurants were? Neither have I. And then there’s the consideration of whether it’s advisable, either, to go out and declare some other restaurant the best. Don’t I think my own place is the best? Well yes, of course, I think we do very good work at Heirloom. But I also feel an obvious interest in the support and celebration of restaurants that do great things, and frequently feel a compulsion to point out these great things if I have even a glimpse of an opportunity to do so.
One of the great things about writing—perhaps the very greatest thing—is that you can make a case on paper and the worst thing that can happen is that nobody will want to read it. So the reason I’d like to make this suggestion about Nopa in the first place is that I’d like to make the case. I’d like to explain why I think this place, exactly, is so great and so important.
So there it is. I think Nopa is the best restaurant in the country, and here’s why.
The origin of the word restaurant, which dates to the 18th century in France, is the French word restaurer, which as you might guess means to restore. When they were originally conceived, the idea of the restaurant was a place where someone went to feel better. The restaurant could have been attached to an inn, in the early days it very likely served a hearty broth of the sort suggested in legend to be a curative. Whatever the case, whatever manner of sustenance you were seeking, these restaurants were designed to try and deliver that experience. They actually had it in mind that they were charged with the responsibility of restoring their guests.
Whether or not the idea of being restored is on very many peoples’ minds today when they make reservations at a local restaurant is anyone’s guess. I certainly can think of a number of other reasons people go to restaurants. I suspect many people go out to eat because they love the flavors of the foods they eat at the restaurants they frequent. But also of course people sometimes go to restaurants because there’s a particular ambience into which they’d like to blend, even because they think they might meet interesting people there. I met a wealthy lady years ago when I was in art school in Boston who told me that she went out to eat in order to see something fresh, to be presented with foods she would never have thought to prepare herself. She thought of restaurant experiences as though they were something like walking through a museum. She didn’t seem very interested in the restoration part.
When I go out to eat, the first thing on my mind most always is what I’m going to eat and how it’s going to make me feel, while sitting at the table and afterward. I live in a wealthy country at a time when lots of talented people, especially in the city in which I live, devote their time and abilities to the production of excellent food. And so it has been quite a long time since I sat down to a meal that was poorly prepared.
On the other hand, there have been many meals in recent memory which in spite of the care and precision with which they were prepared have left me feeling not even as well as I felt before they began. One in particular a few nights ago, at a vastly heralded and popular city restaurant, served plenty of tasty bites but was generally so rich and so various that after thirty minutes of popping morsels into my mouth I was reminded of what it felt like, at age twelve, to binge on sweets and fried foods at the town carnival. Never, during that meal last week, did I feel relaxed, or contemplative, or blissful, and certainly, upon its hasty completion, provocative as it had been, neither did I feel refreshed in any way.
“If I lived in this city and I didn’t work here I would frequent this restaurant—just simply because when I go out there I have a hard time finding clean food. I don’t want to eat bizarre chicken and weird bacon and eggs that I don’t know where they’re from. I’ve eaten lots of meals in lots of places that don’t leave me feeling great the next day.”
There may not be a chef in the country who not only emphasizes but prioritizes the importance of the way guests feel the next day to the degree that Laurence Jossel does. He will be the first to acknowledge that his work is driven to a vast degree by the fact that he lives and works in the Bay Area. His five or six or eight trips to farmers markets every week are undertaken because, as Jossel puts it, he is busy sourcing some of the best produce in the world. And the fervor and seriousness with which he arrives at markets all over town—with enthusiasm something like the feeling a fifteen year-old has for baseball—even though he is one of the city’s most accomplished chefs and could certainly delegate the work, differentiates him even in a city full of great markets and great cooks.
It’s something that I have come to take for granted now, after innumerable visits to Nopa, but even on a night when the restaurant serves 500 dinners, there is hardly a bite of food that comes out of the kitchen that doesn’t seem like the best nature has to offer. Not only are the avocados and the tangerines in the little gem lettuce salad from the fields of the very best growers—the ones that find their way into the dinner bowls are the best of the best. It’s hard to believe, with such a massive volume of plates served every night of the week, that the avocados are so regularly so perfectly ripe, so creamy, so very much the only thing any avocado ever hoped to be, but that has been my experience. Nopa’s ingredients simply never miss.
Moreover, because that avocado and tangerine salad is completed by fresh toasted walnuts and shards of excellent Pecorino cheese, the best tender lettuce leaves and a delicate application of fine but understated vinaigrette, the ingredients are allowed to shine on their own. Many San Francisco chefs are happy to purchase the best ingredients, but few are so content to cut them and leave them be. Laurence Jossel seems very much to believe in the whole food. It’s hard to imagine the juicy sweet tangerine at Nopa without some pith. If the skin on the cucumbers is tender, then the cucumbers are served with their skin. In one dish after another, salads and flatbreads and rotisserie chicken plates, there are these ingredients—avocado and tangerines and baby cucumbers and juicy bacon lardons and nuggets of salty blue cheese, exhibited naked for your hungry consideration.
When I returned to the kitchen to wash the pot in which I had made more oatmeal than I needed, and I considered the dense, dehydrated sweetened cereal that remained. I wondered if it could be formed into little patties and fried in butter to produce delicious little oatmeal cakes, rendered the way other creamy starchy foods like risotto or hummus sometimes are. I used to be a painter, and I don’t know whether creative impulses like this one preceded my painting or if working in the creative process encouraged them in me, or both. In any case, as the inimitable Heirloom pastry chef Majkin Klare suggested to me recently, people who work with food all the time are likely to consider certain untraditional preparations and combinations of ingredients.
I have mixed feelings about these impulses. On one hand, of course the production of food carries with it, in addition to the peeling of potatoes and the routine fabrication of chicken stock, an infinite number of opportunities to permute. Make the vinaigrette with lemon juice or red wine vinegar or juice from sauerkraut. Shuck the fava beans and toss them with fried pork skin or purslane or candied grapefruit rind or all of the above. These possibilities for many cooks and chefs are what make the potato peeling seem worth the drudgery.
But I remember well the number of ideas I tried on canvasses that seemed deliciously intriguing until they appeared in color, and how many of those ideas turned out not to have staying power and were painted over with gallons of jesso and more paint. Anyone who has ever held a brush, or typed a sentence or performed a dance or a soliloquy or anything else knows that a vast number of our creative ideas enjoy short lives before ending up in the dustbin. That’s exactly what makes the process so electric and so much fun, and it’s exactly what makes the occasional resilience and triumph of a great idea such a joyous occasion.
For me, there is an intrinsic difference between creative liberty in writing or painting or graffiti tagging and creative liberty in food production. I’m thinking of the artist in process—the novelist or composer or playwright, who while trying to break the paralysis of his or her process fills the trash basket under the desk with draft after unworthy draft. And if food production is an art like every other art form, and if cooking has as much claim to creative indulgence as do those other disciplines, then it seems to me that my mouth and digestive system might well be asked to play the role of the trash basket. But while I’m free to turn off the music if it isn’t pleasant, to walk out of a Baz Luhrmann film if it makes me feel sick, I have a rather more intractable relationship with that which I swallow.
When David Chang made his comments about cuisine on the west coast being no more inventive than sliced figs on a plate, he was wildly wrongheaded. The production of great food is dependent on precision and inspiration and creativity, yes, he was right about that. But on a scale that has peak-of-the-season figs on one side and molecular gastronomy on the other—the gastronomic gifts of the natural world and the gastronomic gifts of human ingenuity, there can hardly be a debate where our bread is more lavishly buttered. If New Yorkers and Bostonians could serve perfect fresh figs and strawberries they most certainly would, and most of them would do so without being foolish enough to drown, transmogrify, or otherwise diminish their god-given luster. Momofuku is what people might love to eat when the nearest fig trees are thousands of miles away.
That said, the service of figs, and lettuces and walnuts and herbs and fruits and cheeses and meats and fish, can achieve an even more sublime state when they are cut properly, combined in the right proportion with other brilliant, wonderfully complementary ingredients. When this happens, as it does with stunning regularity at Nopa, the spectacular cuisine of Mediterranean climates reaches its apex. Last night I enjoyed a salad that has become a menu fixture this season: house-smoked trout, with quinoa and toasted almonds and purslane and oyster mushrooms and pickled cherries. Even as I write those ingredients and build the look of that dish in my mind, I’m amazed at how unlikely its beauty seems. The fish is orange, the nuts and grain and mushrooms are browns and greys, the purslane a muted dark green and the cherries maroon. If traditional combinations—like Caprese or frisee aux lardons or prosciutto with arugula and parmesan have pure, Mozart-like tonality, this salad is more like the guy banging on cans on the street corner.
And yet it transcends so many of the compositions found at more expensive restaurants in major cities around the world. For one thing, it is astonishingly healthy. It’s low in sodium, the fats in it are derived from beautiful mountain fish and almonds and olive oil, the bursts of sugar and acid come straight from a half-dozen luscious cherries, purslane is absolutely loaded with vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. The ingredients themselves are the best available. The trout is from a top fishery on Mount Lassen in northern California, the cherries were certainly chosen by hand at a local market while others were passed over. Most importantly, the touch involved here in composing this mélange of ingredients is an artistry that comes only from profound respect for the ingredients themselves and from years of practice preparing them.
Every plate served at Nopa has a similar blueprint. Chicken with watermelon and hazelnuts and feta cheese is served just as advertised—a perfectly roasted half-bird with succulent melon and toasted nuts and saline cheese. Tonight’s flatbread might have fennel sausage, squash, mint and pecorino, or it might have bacon, caramelized onions, kale and crème fraiche. What is certain is that the jewels of the area farmers markets will be included in the nightly menu, and that each of them will attend the gala exactly as they are, which is to say radiant, unmasked, perfectly conditioned.
“I’m here to serve people—I’m in hospitality. So when people come in, no matter whether they’re happy or sad I have to try and create a great experience for them. Every time I go home I know that what we’ve put in front of the guest is the best thing that we could do. On Monday or Tuesday night, when we’re doing 450 covers, people are coming back, maybe it’s because people feel comfortable, because they know what they’re getting.”
To walk into the towering former bank at the corner of Divisadero and Hayes is to feel a particular surge in circulation. The pulse quickens, the mouth waters, the mind might as well be on a street corner in Manhattan at mid-day or a bustling outdoor market. There is a more or less immediate sense that something is common here. People seem to be dressed in whatever manner they please. The staff, which at first is trying to figure out how to get you seated, communicates with each other with respect and sympathy and patient efficiency, as though they’ve enjoyed working together for ten years. And there is the feeling, I think for a vast number of people who live in this city and the surrounding area, that what is laid out before you is there for you. If at some restaurants there is an immediate impression of opulence, or the ingenuity of the people who built it, here there is an intrinsic feeling that the place was designed to serve people.
With the full resources of the Nopa kitchen and immensely discreet and conscientious cocktail and wine programs, one can ably pretend that she is the queen of the castle, and at nearly any hour of the day. Whether she desires French toast with fruit and excellent coffee on Saturday morning, or a beer and a Gruyere and bacon burger early on a Sunday evening, or a four course dinner served gracefully with wine at midnight—any night of the week—Nopa will be ready to receive her. She shouldn’t expect a red carpet; she won’t find it here.
What she will find is a server who arrives at the table and is kind and warm and accommodating. The service will not necessarily be precise or hugely refined, in the way for instance that some service which depends on a scripted process sometimes is. The script which is often handed to servers in fine restaurants, who are told that they should feel free to paraphrase its gist as they approach each table, is of no interest here. I would guess that Jeff Hanak would view that as a shortcut to good service—an attempt to subjugate the real matters of service: sympathy, listening, interpretation, behind a stiff and glossy corporate mantra.
This isn’t to say that good dinner service can’t be achieved by making stipulations about what servers should say when they approach tables, but it won’t approach the level of service attained by hiring and supporting great people and encouraging them to be themselves in their work. The latter comes only from the installation of a broad ethic at the top of a restaurant culture, in which the owners work hard themselves, and speak to everyone with respect, and smile and laugh and struggle and be human. In hospitality, as much as any other workplace, humanity or a lack thereof permeates every aspect of the environment. Goodwill and generosity are contagious, and there will be nowhere to hide, behind titles or authority or online interfaces, if those are absent.
“Our mission statement has to do with maintaining sustainable communities. And that philosophy first goes to the staff, in how we treat each other with respect and support and education, and then it goes to our guests, and then it goes to our purveyors. Whenever we make a decision, as a bartender or a host, or a cook a chef or an owner, it’s not based on an individual—does it benefit you, does it benefit the restaurant, does it benefit the guest, does it benefit the purveyor, and if it benefits all of those than we can be sustainable financially, because we are a business, but also from the standpoint of giving back. I read that mission statement every couple of weeks.”
We live in an age of superlatives, in which information about the world’s number one golfer, or the best family sedan, or wines rated 100 points, is not just everywhere, not only ubiquitous like trash cans and fire hydrants, but in some way regarded as vital. We have a seemingly insatiable appetite to know who won the award for being the very best of the competition and which company makes the best television set for the money. There’s always a best way to get from one place to another, and who cares anyway what some poet might have recommended in some distant epoch about paths less traveled. Google Maps will not prescribe wandering or meandering, under any circumstances.
Nothing suffers more inside our fantastic A Number 1 snow globe of a world than our discretion when it comes to the mundane parts of our lives. Taking a walk every morning might be a very good idea for almost everyone, but it’s not an idea likely to be profiled on a morning news show or in a magazine. The dried organic beans you discovered last year at a farmers market that are so healthy and delicious that you could include them in three meals a day are probably never going to win an award.
This I think is how it has come to pass that a restaurant like Nopa could seem to be regarded more as a neighborhood institution than as one of the greatest restaurants in this or any other city. Accolades for people who work in food and hospitality are mostly reserved for overt inventiveness, for owners or chefs who build mousetraps more or less intentionally designed to be this week’s hot find on this website or another, to land them on the cover of a glossy magazine. The place that sets out to feed very good food to hundreds of people every night, until the wee hours of the morning—while certainly not taken for granted by the many people who adore it, is not usually involved in the conversation about who is doing the very best work.
I sometimes imagine what the Divisadero corridor was like before Nopa opened, or what life would be like now without it. Having a place like this in my neighborhood may be more important to me than to most—I really enjoy public eating places, but I tend to think that thousands of people would feel quite a loss, as though their power went out, or the busses stopped running. We would be left to source peak-of-the-season ingredients on our own. Joining a couple of friends for brunch would mean settling in with a cup of coffee and a croissant baked at some remote location; trout salad as a midnight option would give way to sushi, pizza and the homemade turkey dinner at Mel’s Diner.
None of those sad choices, perhaps you would agree, promise very much restoration.