As much as I like octopus, brussels sprouts, and cocoa nibs, we do not need these things to appear on every menu. If you feel similarly — about these ingredients or its other constant friends — consider Nomica, a sushi-less Franco-Japanese restaurant from the team behind Sausalito’s famed Sushi Ran, along with chef Hiroo Nagahara of Chicago’s even-more-famed Charlie Trotter. And let me just make my personal preferences clear right at the top by saying that, beyond cephalopods and brassicas, I like bizarre and I dislike cutesy. So Nomica — whose faux-Asian name combines the first letters of Noe Valley, Mission, and Castro — is right up my alley.
Apart from the merits of any one particular item, this restaurant deserves credit for its willingness to take risks. Even things that manifestly do not work have a certain valiance to them, such as a plate of three shigoku oysters ($12) that come with kanzuri granita. Kanzuri is a chili paste that ferments in the snow, so I grok the concept, but I still don’t ever want to eat an almost-frozen oyster (and one so cold it neutralized the chili, anyway). The other genuine failure was a coconut parfait dessert ($10), an incomprehensible amalgam of tapioca, peanuts, and more granita over microgreens that tasted like little more than unripe tomato.
But the good outweighs the bad, particularly whenever mushrooms are involved, as in the “laminated brioche” ($12). These three maximally flaky pastries, like chambered nautiluses, come filled with a duxelles of shiitake and koji, and a buttery blob of whipped jidori egg yolk inside. (I thought that last bit was a coup; my dinner date said it went overboard. We argued at length.) Significantly less fatty was a seaweed salad ($9) with pine nut butter, radishes, crispy buckwheat, and at least four or five different types of seaweed. It’s small, but too flavorful and plotted out to be a mere palate-sharpener; it felt like something you might eat at high-end rehab in Malibu. And a marinated salmon belly with ponzu and ginger ($17) might not be the most intrepid move, but it was great through and through, with the look and feel of tuna on the bottom.
Entrees followed a similar high-risk, high-reward scheme. A black miso lamb chop (a bit steep at $36) was well-cooked but overly made up, so saucy it felt like it really wanted to be a plate of ribs. Grilled fish ($28), with vegetable ash, trumpet mushrooms, and savoy cabbage, was extraordinary, its skin crackling over a helping of quinoa that was sweet and robust.
But for the best example of risk-taking, inspect the karaage chicken and beer waffle ($22). Karaage is a sauce typically made with garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and cooking sake, usually applied in modest amounts onto cubed chicken. Nomica’s menu lists matcha butter and truffle maple as its buddies, but omits the bowls of mustard aioli and the turmeric-coated daikon that make it more like Korean fried chicken — with a waffle. These chicken cubes are big enough to require being cut into eight smaller ones, and having done so, I stared at what was in front of me. Matcha butter on the waffle made the most sense, but I tried every combination for the hell of it, enjoying some more than others but mostly relishing the novelty. If you like that sort of checklist-on-a-clipboard approach, you’ll have fun with this dish, but if you were hungering for soul food with a little twist, you might feel otherwise.
Cocktails were hit or miss, though mostly in the execution and not in the concept. The Floating World ($12) was a magnificent combination of Awamori, the Okinawan rice spirit, and gentian, with two chrysanthemum petals skimming the surface. The Flower & Snake ($12) was more of a drowned world, a thin, faint Negroni. Ditto the whiskey-rose-and-citrus Sakura Hi-Ball ($12), which also arrived as if it had sat in the cocktail shaker for several minutes, although the sakura leaf stuck vertically to the glass was a nice touch. But the best of the lot was the Stray Cat Rock ($12), which the bartender recommended because it was National Feral Cat Day. That’s actually Sunday, Oct. 16, but hey, this mix of Cognac, shiitake, carpano, sherry, Kümmel liqueur, and rosemary was worth a seductive fib. Umami cocktails must prevail!
I’ve written before that while the Castro dining scene has improved tremendously, a lot of it due to its proximity to the Mission and to Divisadero Street, there’s a ways to go — and not just because of one eccentric commercial landlord who owns many vacant storefronts and seems happy to keep them that way. Nomica illustrates the other part of the problem. For good or for ill, the Mission just does a better job of integrating its food culture with its drinking culture, while the much-smaller Castro is a neighborhood to which a lot of visitors come to get wasted and throw away their inhibitions. No shame there, but it does put pressure on restaurants to maintain a party atmosphere, and that can have an effect on a food-focused place.
Since 2223 Market St. has now been home to four restaurants in less than five years, the question to ask is: What made all the previous places go wrong? I don’t think it’s the space itself, which is smartly divided with room for large parties and two-tops by the bar, although a cul-de-sac of tables in the front feels overcrowded. Nomica plays good music at a good volume, too, but the Japanese interior is austere and serene, and the food may be too challenging to appeal to buzzed people spilling out of bars. (I doubt a $100 whole chicken in brioche that requires 24 hours’ notice will get many takers, either.) I hope it thrives, and avoids the fate of its predecessors as well as of the other cursed space just up the block — 2251 Market, which had been home to a rapidly changing cycle of Korean restaurants, and which is right now being transformed into Ryan Scott’s Finn Town. There’s another unlucky address across Sanchez Street, too: the triangular building that Bagdad Cafe, SliderBar, and Ovok called home and which is now the seven-month-old Castro Republic. In other words, it’s a rough neighborhood, and, well, risk-taking is risky. But may the hex be lifted, starting here.
Nomica 2223 Market St. 415-655-3280 or nomicasf.com. Hours: Mon-Sat, 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun, closed.