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Tasty Decor 

An uneven Mediterranean kitchen and international wines come sleekly wrapped in exotic wood

Wednesday, Jul 25 2007
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The cosmopolitan and eclectic bent of Nua, a new restaurant and wine bar located in the heart of North Beach, is signalled not only by the ingredients of its dishes, ranging from house-made Italian fennel sausage to piquillo peppers, but also by the dish's names, which include albondigas and Parisienne herbed gnocchi. Its wine list is even more wide-ranging, including bottles from Greece and South Africa as well as the more expected French, Italian, German, and American offerings. The menu wishes you a good appetite in Italian, Spanish, and French: Buon Appetito, Buen Provecho, and Bon Appetit. Which language, we wondered, was the source of Nua's name, and what did it mean? We admired the strikingly handsome, exotic wood that wraps the selection of wine bottles behind the bar, turning them into wittily displayed art. The same wood is used for the tops of Nua's sleek tables, its rich variegated grain unobscured by table linen. When we learned that it was Bolivian rosewood, we were leaning toward Spanish.

But no: Nua is a Gaelic word meaning, much as it sounds, new. It was chosen as a nod to the owner's heritage and his desire to find a name that was catchy, euphonious, and short. The one-page seasonal menu, printed nightly, appeared catchy, euphonious, and short-ish on the night half a dozen of us arrived at 8:45 for dinner. There were 10 dishes listed on the left that looked like shareable small plates, including such classic tapas as piquillo peppers stuffed with brandade, the albondigas, and gambas al ajillo, garlicky prawns; and six on the right, a risotto, two fish preparations, duck confit, pork chop, and steak, that were clearly main courses.

But our server steered us away from the small-plates idea by saying that the left-hand dishes were starters and the right-hand mains, even suggesting to a woman who wanted to dine on two starters that she might not be getting enough. He said that the sardine appetizer was only one sardine, though it was called crispy sardines escabeche. In any event, she went with two first courses, as did another woman, and everybody had quite enough to eat.

Though we found no fault with the amounts prettily arranged on stark white porcelain plates, some rectangular, others round, the ambition, invention, and execution swerved wildly from dish to dish. Two starters were astonishingly good. I've never had a goat cheese tart quite like the one we had here, not, as often seen, a dryish mixture plopped in an individual tart shell, but a wedge of quivering, shimmering lemony and cheesy custard cut from a whole fragile-crusted pie and set among colorful tangy marinated beets and baby greens drizzled with a roasted shallot-banyuls vinaigrette. I felt sorry for its orderer, as we all descended on the dish and bore away forkfuls in triumph. Nearly as acclaimed were the Parisienne herbed gnocchi. They were the tiniest, softest little dumplings imaginable, clearly gnocchi but looking like they were prepared for a doll's supper, and a lucky doll indeed, since they were swimming in nutty browned butter, matched with a mushroom medley that included deep-flavored wild mushrooms as well as almost microscopic Japanese mushrooms, and crowned with crisp bread crumbs and pecorino Romano. Third in our affection was the bowlful of roasted cauliflower with capers, pine nuts, and parsley, ordered off the list of three vegetable sides.

But we found the other first courses less exciting. A surprisingly mingy salad of about six Little Gem salad leaves, whose dressing — a mustardy vinaigrette amped up with tarragon, chives, and crumbs of ricotta salata — was a little flat. The sardines escabeche indeed turned out to be two sardine filets, not one, atop Blue Lake beans, cauliflower florets, and currants, a combination that didn't quite work. A Belgian endive, wild arugula, and peach salad, with hazelnuts, blue cheese, and a champagne-tarragon vinaigrette, felt like an uninspired standard. And the enticing-sounding french fries with smoked paprika and harissa aioli were a disaster: first arriving as two overflowing bowlfuls when we'd ordered only one, and then seeming so overpoweringly salted that they were sent back. The do-over was only slightly less salty, but had none of the crisp allure that we want from french fries.

And not one of the mains possessed the glamour, surprise, or flavor of the delightful goat cheese tart and gnocchi. The dishes seemed assembled, rather than cooked together, in predictable, almost classical, combinations as seen in many contemporary urban kitchens. The grilled rib-eye steak was massive, served atop white gigande beans with salsa verde, Savoy spinach, and cherry tomato confit. A nice enough piece of meat; again, as with many of the mains, slightly too salty. The couscous studded with pistachio and apricots had dried out and clumped together alongside its dryish duck confit and Bing cherry compote. Both the fish dishes — Alaskan halibut and wild local king salmon — were easy to eat, though ever-so-slightly overcooked for modern tastes. The two starters consumed as second courses were a tasty bowlful of Prince Edward Island mussels and Manila clams with chickpeas, red bell pepper, and small, hard chunks of andouille sausage; and two rather bland, smooth chunks of house-made Italian fennel sausage served with red onion marmalade and grilled nectarines.

The full room was almost painfully noisy, and the food proved an insufficient distraction.

After the dip in execution with the mains, we felt the desserts were almost as wonderful as the best first courses: a chocolate soufflé with mint crème anglaise whose only fault was that it was too small for our competitive spoons; a rich pot de crème layered with butterscotch sauce; and a fresh blueberry and fromage blanc tart.

When I returned with a single companion for an early dinner, we shared four first courses: the gambas, albondigas, and piquillo peppers, with a rerun of the exquisite gnocchi. They were as good as remembered. The three other dishes were good, if not nearly as stellar: four shell-on shrimp swimming in a peppery broth; half a dozen pale veal-and-pork mushrooms in a bit of creamy almond bread sauce, topped with roasted almonds for crunch; and two pretty bright-red peppers stuffed with salt-cod brandade, sided with a slick of garlicky persillade and some frisée with snipped chives. This time, instead of trying a couple of decent low-end bottles from the extensive wine list as we had the first time, we sampled from among the more than two dozen by-the-glass offerings, cutely separated into "bubbles," "are you blushing?," "white noise," and "seeing red," priced from $5.50 to $13.50 a glass. (These monikers are abandoned on the main list.)

After the starters, brought out in two courses by well-trained and attractive servers, we were still hungry. So we shared the porterhouse pork chop, a thick cut, brought pink as requested but nearly tasteless, and not particularly helped out by its two chunks of crispy polenta, halved Black Mission figs, and heap of baby red chard, the whole not really brought together by a bit of pork jus. Most of the dish was boxed up to go.

The chic room, with its comfy gray-and-rust leather banquette, spidery chrome-and-black-leather barstools and chairs, and strikingly grained wood, was, alas, tastier to me than most of Nua's food.

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Meredith Brody

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