Sunday, February 14, 2010
Last week, I was invited to a media dinner at Nombe. The former owners of Sozai Restaurant & Sake Lounge, Gil Payne and Mari Takahashi, partnered up with the executive chef from O Izakaya, Nick Balla, and created a new restaurant in Mission. If you've been to old Sozai, you may not recognize that Nombe is run by the same people until you actually taste some of the food. Even then, because their food has been refined, you may not notice that at all. While the old Sozai was quiet and had few and simple Japanese decor, Nombe feels like you are in a bar. The funky atmosphere created by the dark reddish lighting and upbeat music, the kind you would expect in any bar, made it more inviting for the younger crowd.
Nombe in Japanese means lush, but it could also mean an imbiber, someone who is a thirsty regular found at Izakayas in Japan. Though I'm not even close to an expert in sake, their long list of sake selection is quite impressive. If you are new to sake, don't worry, Mr. Payne is a very friendly sake sommelier, he would be happy to help you with that.
We asked the waitress for the recommendations and pretty much followed what she suggested all the way. We also ordered at least an item from every category: house plate, fried dish, grilled dish, starchy dish and dessert. First item we had was from the house special - sautéed Brussels Sprouts with mint, carrot and togarashi (spicy powdered assortment of dried chil peppers and other seasonings), drizzled with ponzu sauce. It's very similar to Namu's Brussels sprouts, but this one had a more refreshing taste to it and of course no fatty pork pieces.
The second dish was from Agemono (fried) - Pork Belly with karashi (Japanese mustard), stewed onion and shoyu tamago. Oh my god! This was to die for. The combination of pork and boiled egg seemed a bit weird, but it was sublime. The pork was crispy on the outside and very juicy inside. The egg was cooked to just perfection. It was so soft that picking it up with chopsticks almost broke the egg. Because it was cooked in shoyu (soy sauce), it has faint brown tint on the egg perimeter.
The third dish was also from house plate, Black Cod with spinach, fennel, leek and miso. It must have been only cooked to medium. I'm so used to grilled fish being very tough and dry, it was a big surprise for me when I tried to pick up some meat off the fish. It was very fluffy, unbelievably soft and almost melted in my mouth. The fish was accompanied by some cooked vegetables; they were so creamy I couldn’t believe it was miso. If I could make fish like this, I would eat it everyday!
The fourth item, we ordered the Yakitori Sampler from Yakimono (grilled). Yakitori literally means grilled chicken in Japanese. All different parts of chicken are put on skewers and grilled and it is one of the most popular street foods in Japan. Our sampler came with chicken thigh with ume and shiso, Negima (chicken thigh with scallions), chicken gizzard, tsukune (it's usually chicken balls, but sometimes made into one big piece on a stick like this) with egg, chicken hearts, and chicken skin. I'm typically not thrilled about any organ meat or gizzard, but they somehow made it so tasty that I didn't even care what I was eating.
As I talked about Izakaya food before, you order starchy item towards the end of your meal. So for our starch option, we chose Wild Nori. Crunchy salty wild nori and toasted sesame seeds were mixed into steamed white rice and topped with chopped scallions. I truly take my hat off to this dish for making plain rice so tasty.
Since I couldn't make it to the dessert last time, this time I made sure to leave some room for that. There were three options for the dessert and they were all new items I haven't seen before. As the waitress suggested, we tried Warm Kabocha Mochi Cake with Toasted Almonds, which she explained that pureed pumpkin is incorporated into the actual mochi. It sounded pretty good and I was expecting chewy, sweet soft mochi like daihuku kind, but it was actually more like rice pumpkin pie without the crust. The consistency was quite dense and not as chewy as I imagined. This was probably my least favorite of the dinner. But this place is where you go to drink good sake and eat savory street food, so I’m not surprised.
I didn’t come to Nombe just because I was invited for the dinner. I had actually wanted to try it out since they opened in December 2009, because I knew that they would have really good food. What I like about this restaurant is that it’s not pretentious at all. You know that your money goes to quality of food and drinks and not the interior décor or fancy table cloth and dishware. Their food is very down to earth and there is no rush to finish your meal.
2491 Mission Street SF
Sun, Mon, Wed, Thu, 6:00pm-11:00pm
Fri, Sat 11:00-2:00am
email@example.com - 415.681.7150