Everyone has a part of SanFrancisco they hate with a passionate intensity. I’m not talking about entire neighborhoods necessarily — although people certainly have strong opinions there — as much as little pockets of the urban fabric. The area of Franklin Street around Sutter and Pine, just as you crest the hill coming up from Hayes Valley, has always struck me as irredeemably bland. (That the 1906 fire crossed Van Ness Avenue right there might have something to do with it.)
The area around Harrison and First streets is similar. The visually stunning Sailor’s Union of the Pacific notwithstanding, the pedestrian-hostile area consists mostly of freeway entrance ramps and luxury high-rise condos like Jasper and One Rincon Hill, with almost nothing at street scale. So while it may be surprising that Thad Vogler (Bar Agricole, Trou Normand, Obispo) and Jon Santer (Prizefighter) chose this area for a new project, it’s not altogether shocking they were able to execute it in relative secrecy, just after Obispo opened on 24th Street to great acclaim. Once-storied Rincon Hill might have become as lifeless as a carrot Bunnicula snuck into the refrigerator to devitalize, but no longer, because now there is Nommo.
You hear the names of those principals and you’re probably going to start free-associating about globally rare calvados and large-format punches. In reality, it’s a bit simpler and freer than that — but not entirely. Nommo is a large, less-than-overdesigned room that feels like one-third bar, one-third restaurant, and one-third occasional event space to be used when none of the partners’ other properties will do. Its obvious strengths are its sherries — in five-ounce pours, too — and its “Wee Dram Project,” in which you can sample high-end treats like Van Winkle Special Reserve bourbon or In Situ Cucharillo, a mezcal from Oaxaca that’s totally unrelated to Corey Lee’s restaurant in SFMOMA, one ounce at a time.
The all-$15, almost-all-three-ingredient cocktail list hinges on hand-cut or pellet ice, with summery coolers like a Leave It to Me (vodka, lemon, raspberry, and Maraschino) so simple they almost dare you not to order them and peruse the menu for something more complicated instead. Perhaps the most elegant is La Iguana, an intriguing combination of mezcal, white vermouth, and a hint of chili. It is its own hot rock.
A wine list like this brief, with two or three varietals per category available by the glass, invites simple combinations, like a Malbec and a burger, although that’s going to come out to $48 with tax and tip. So you might as well steer yourself toward cheese or salumi from Mangalitsa pigs, exclusively raised by Dinner Bell Farms (which have to be ordered separately). Coppa and a fennel-garlic finocchiona were our table’s favorites, while the pâtè is skippable.
Some of the rustic small plates are wise decisions, from pleasantly mild marinated anchovies to the utter-antithesis-of-mild mushrooms marinated in paprika, lemon, parsley and thyme. Among the larger dishes, the decidedly Teutonic boudin blanc was a bit spartan for $29, merely a creamy sausage over some sauerkraut with a bit of calvados jus. Your opinion of the gemelli pasta will depend entirely on your opinion of marjoram, which tastes either like oregano with its bottom notes sliced off or else some kind of lavender dish soap. Steamed mussels, with a little crème fraîche in there with the white wine, were far superior, especially when it comes time to fight over who gets to dip the bread in the broth, and they’re fun with a glass of La Gitana Manzanilla, aged for five or six years near the ocean to become one of the driest wines in the world. (Believe it.)
Dessert, as is sadly the case at more and more places, consists of one unimaginative option: two scoops of salted caramel ice cream for a somewhat pushy $10. But happy hour represents a serious bargain, relative to the standard price points. Mondays through Saturdays from 4 to 6 p.m., and all day on Sundays, Nommo serves dollar oysters — they’re typically $4 — along with a $5 glass of organic white wine and an a la carte salumi for $10. That the menu gives a shout-out to the entire team, masthead-style, is a warm touch.
It sounds like a variation on the circa-2011 food-journalism cliche that was probably derived from Cookie Monster — “mmm, nom nom nom nom nom” — but the name comes from an unlikelier place. The Nommos were spirits or deities from the star Sirius honored by the cliff-dwelling Dogon people in Mali, whose name means something like “to make one drink.” (That’s meant in the sense of “to make a person drink,” and not “to mix a single drink.”) But after lingering in here, you’re not going to walk away with pretentious vibes, just straightforward Franco-Iberian ones — mixed with an unfortunate LED streetlight that pours in through the floor-to-ceiling plate glass window. And whereas Bar Agricole is forever jumping, and Obispo has a sort of retro sexiness dating from Batista-era Cuba, Nommo is comparatively mellow. It feels like a proving ground for experiments. Given time and a bit more playfulness, it has real potential to light up a banal part of San Francisco.
Nommo, 396 Harrison St., nommosf.com