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Will Nopa Be the New SOMA? 

Could be. Restaurants open, neighborhood follows.

Wednesday, Jun 14 2006
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In rapidly gentrifying cities, where a search for affordable housing turns every neighborhood, no matter how sketchy, grubby, or charmless, into a possible one, it's the amenities that follow that make those areas not just possible, but alluring — complete with cute acronyms that redefine them. This trend started decades ago, in New York, when artists seeking cheap spaces turned the industrial area south of Houston into SoHo, and then ventured further south into the triangle of New York below Canal, which became Tribeca. But not everybody came to SoHo and Tribeca to live; hordes were attracted to these former no-man's-lands by intrepid local bars, trailblazing eateries, and the shops and galleries that soon followed.

Even one restaurant could make a serious difference: the Odeon opened on an entirely barren stretch of West Broadway — I swear you could see tumbleweeds in the street — in not-yet-Tribeca in 1980, and within minutes there were limos idling outside. I saw it happen in my own nondescript Los Angeles neighborhood, which already had a serviceable moniker, the Miracle Mile, but whose amenities changed rapidly once a grungy, seen-better-days edifice built in the '20s by Charlie Chaplin was renovated and became the home of the excellent Campanile restaurant and its adjacent La Brea Bakery. Suddenly, La Brea and neighboring streets were dotted with chic little stores selling flowers, books, shoes, antiques — and more restaurants followed.

The cute-name syndrome struck San Francisco, too; many balked at SOMA, feeling it was a weak imitation of New York nomenclature (and what was wrong with the old South of the Slot?), but now, long after the trailblazers such as bacar and LuLu, there are no doubt those who think it always was SOMA, as they head to SOMA Pizza or the SoMa Inn Cafe.

And now there's a restaurant that seemingly intends to rename its neighborhood, as well as entice the hungry hordes. I've hitherto thought of the area where Nopa is as the Western Addition, never a drawing point, but the name, we're told on its Web site, comes from its location north of the Panhandle. (Reminding me that a portion of the Tenderloin has been somewhat optimistically renamed the Tendernob.) Furthermore, we're told, it's a San Francisco gathering place. A gathering place it swiftly became, as I saw on the first visit.

I'd called in the usual way for a reservation a few days in advance, only to be told: "We only take reservations starting at 5 p.m. for same-day dining." That was a new one on me, and seemed chancy, but they assured me it was working out just fine. So I called a couple of days later, on the dot, and easily secured an early-ish 6:30 reservation for two. Peter and I were led promptly to a table on the ground floor of the impressive two-story space, which had most recently housed a Laundromat, but had been built as a bank — confirmed when Peter spied the massive old vault in the back, now being used as wine storage. Not every table was full just yet, but there was already a crowd two deep at the long bar, running down one wall, backed by towering windows interspaced with long mirrors that reflected a colorful cartoony cityscape mural in the upstairs balcony dining room. We could manage to hear each other under the happy din, but din there was.

"Mediterranean," I thought, looking at the 10 starters, ranging from warm marinated olives to pomegranate lamb riblets with coriander and mint, and the seven mains, which ranged from a house ground burger with harissa aioli to a fish stew with saffron and rouille that included the sea's name in its description. We started with baked goat cheese, which was almost liquid in its little ramekin, with a heap of nicely oily crostini chips and a bit of frisee and (not enough) pickled beets. No, actually, we started with the most minuscule amuse I've ever been served, one thin French radish each, with a pat of butter and a saucer of sea salt. (Later diners, I noticed, got halved radishes; they must have been running out. It was more an idea of an amuse than an actual one. Hey, it was amusing.) I would have liked a more substantial and more pungent cheese, but our second starter was superb: a heap of tiny, hot, crackling fried fish, served with crisp, faintly licoricey fennel and a good tangy garlicky romesco sauce, gritty with nuts.

Our pleasure continued with the main courses: braised duck leg, actually two whole legs and thighs (surprisingly generous after the teasingly tiny radish), juicy in a balsamic reduction studded with sweet carrots and tiny translucent pearl onions, and a very seasonal treatment of a nice oily slab of white-fleshed sturgeon, pan-seared and adorned with asparagus, peas, artichokes, and tarragon: almost faultless, if the peas hadn't been overcooked. (And that's a real matter of split-second timing.)

Happy diners on either side of us inquired about our dishes and praised their own, unusually convivial and slightly high from being out in a place they enjoyed.

We asked our server if they prepared food to go — we wanted to take something for Peter's wife Anita, due to be picked up after a meeting — and the server said they didn't, but sweetly and conspiratorily offered to bring it to the table and then, after a bit, wrap it up to accompany the remains of my sturgeon home.

As it happened, Anita arrived unexpectedly, as her aromatic Moroccan spring vegetable (asparagus, zucchini, beets, onions, and more, in a cumin-scented tomatoey sauce) tagine arrived, in an oval baking dish, dotted with fresh lemony yogurt and big crunchy almonds. She tucked into it with delight, as Peter and I toyed with a pile of warm sugary doughnut holes served with a saucer of orange honey.

When I dutifully called at 5 a couple of weeks later for a 7:30 table, I was told "I'll see what we have left."

"But it's just 5," I said, "how can you already be booked?"

"Oh, we've started taking reservations at 2." (And for now, that's the drill.)

We insisted on sitting downstairs, already warm from the sun still streaming in the windows; the lazily turning ceiling fans didn't look as though they'd help much upstairs. Tommy and Garrett and I felt the need for a drink, but not, alas, the drinks we tried from the special cocktail menu. Tommy found the La Cazza Ladra (sherry, vermouth, and peach bitters, served in a delicate champagne flute) insufficiently alcoholic, and I thought that the Last Word (gin, maraschino, chartreuse, lime juice) and the El Diablo (tequila, crème de cassis, lime juice, and ginger beer) both tasted faintly insecticidal.

The food, this time, seemed more uneven, the noise more oppressive; I liked the sliced flatbread topped with sausage, broccoli de cicco, and red onions, but the cauliflower soup tasted mostly of cream (which is fine, if you like cream, and I do), and the halibut carpaccio mostly of its drenching with olive oil and covering of arugula. Best dish that night was the thick pork chop with flageolet beans and chopped chard, and also a side we ordered of creamy mashed potatoes; worst, the pale, dullish, unjuicy rotisserie chicken, and the overcooked slices of spit-roasted lamb in a too-sweet pomegranate glaze (odd lapses in a place that highlights its "wood-fired cuisine" on its Web site).

But when Anita returned from a sojourn in Cannes, she told me, "That tagine was 10 times better than anything I had there." She was happier in Nopa than on the French Riviera.

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