Wednesday, March 09, 2011


Patatas Bravas - crispy fried potatoes with allioli and salsa brava.

I had been following the writing of Chef Brett Emerson's exploits for quite some time and the last time I was in San Francisco, I emailed him to see if his battle to open Contigo had been won. Sadly, I was a couple weeks too early and would miss his new restaurant and went to another Noe Valley institution: Incanto.

Two years later, Contigo is no longer "new" and they're sure to have worked out all the kinks. Meeting us at the restaurant is childhood friend Dennis and his new girlfriend (? - one is never really sure) Kelly. By the time we arrive, they've already secured a table on the back covered patio where the gas heaters are running at full bore.

Marinated Spanish Olives - fried marcona almonds and pickled farmers market vegetables.

Contigo is interesting in that it combines the recipes and flavors of Spain and Catalan with the sensibilities of modern-day American Farm-To-Table. It's cute, hip and appealing. The design is clean and modern while remaining warm and comfortable. There's a show kitchen as you walk in and the equipment is gleaming.

But how is the food? As you read the menu descriptions that Farm-To-Table penchant shines through with F2T buzzwords like "Fried Farm Egg" and "Pickled Farmers Market Vegetables" and the pimenton potato chips seem too cute (read:tiny) to really get into without having to bunch up a lot in your fingers and try to eat them with any semblance of elegance.

Jamon Iberico de Bellota - acorn fed spanish heritage "pata negra" ham, aged 36 months.

But everything is good - even the tripe and chorizo with chickpeas, easily the most contested dish of the evening. Everything is fresh and delicious (read: Pork Belly Bocadillo). Sadly, the beef cheeks were already 86'd by the time we arrived.

There's also a Seven Course Tapas Tasting Menu available for $40 per person, served family style. It sounds interesting but our way afforded us thirteen different plates for roughly the same amount of money, including a couple of drinks. The exploratory part of me is interested in the tasting menu, but there's something about selecting a range of dishes based on your whims that also is alluring. Maybe even more so.

A close up.

In the end, Contigo was worth the visit. The food was delicious and fresh. The staff was helpful and friendly. We ate a lot (but not too much) and we drank well (but not too much). Even with thirteen dishes, there's still a lot more to explore on the menu and we'll have to make another visit the next time we're in San Francisco.

Dennis and Ana compare jamon tasting notes.

Kelly anticipates the next course.

Local Halibut Crudo - with seville oranges, olives, kumquats, radishes and wild radish blossoms.

Pork Belly Bocadillo - with harissa allioli, pickled onions and pimenton potato chips.

First-Of-The-Season Asparagus - with mojama, pimenton almonds and an olive oil fried farm egg.

Calamars a la Planxa - with cara cara oranges, black olives, pickled onions and spiced chickpeas.

Tripe with Chorizo and Chickpeas - from our wood oven.

Coca (Flatbread) of Broccoli Rabe - our txistorra sausage, caramelized onions and manchego.

Chocolate sorbet, vanilla ice cream and barquillo.

1320 Castro Street
San Francisco, CA 94114

Journey to San Francisco

Across the agricultural plains along the I-5 North.

For reasons that now escape me, I thought driving from L.A. to San Francisco would be a good idea. I had never done the drive before and thought that it was a drive worth doing. Then, once I arrived in L.A. and started doing the calculations: one day up, one day in Napa, another day back, and I started to realize the folly of my ways. I wanted to fly.

Using all the tricks I know in arranging air travel, I still couldn't find a round trip cost under $700 - I always thought there were $75 commuter flights between LAX and SFO. Maybe for those who plan ahead, but the night before? No. Into the car we would go.

Seven hours later, we enter San Francisco.

I buy from a couple of farmers back in Maryland. I've visited a couple of farms too. I've heard the stories of the west coast farms but nothing has prepared me for what I was about to see. Not just acres of crops but miles of crops and cattle. Easily, we passed at least fifty miles of almond groves. Lettuce (or some sort of leafy green) is also a popular crop along the I-5, as are citrus fruits like oranges and lemons. We even snagged a bag of oranges for five bucks in Kettleman City.

It's difficult to fathom the vastness of the agriculture industry. Thousands of acres of cattle for both meat and dairy. High capacity farms with cattle mushed together getting ready for the slaughter. I'm fascinated while being slightly repulsed, but I also know that it seems impossible to continuously feed a nation of 330 million people without such scale - not to mention all the food we produce for export to feed people in other parts of the world.

Ana and her Americano.

Seeing the fields of green leafy vegetables reminded me of a conversation I once had with a friend whose family operates large-scale lettuce farming in Arizona: that the land had been farmed so much that the only nutrients in the lettuce were the nutrients they sprayed onto the crop while growing. Massive and kind of scary.

The drive north on the I-5 is long, straight and relatively boring (once you get past the fascination of miles of crops). It's tempting to push the speed to 100mph but the flow runs just under 80mph (the cut off for getting pulled over when the speed limit is 65mph) and my KIA Optima just doesn't seem up to the task of prolonged cruising at high speeds.

Four Barrel Head Roaster Tal Mor and Ecco Caffe Founder Andrew Barnett.

With only a lunch stop in Kettleman City (to pick up the aforementioned bag of oranges), we make it to San Francisco during the early rush hour and make our way to the coffeeshops of the Mission District, visiting both Ritual and Four Barrel where old friend Andrew Barnett comes to join us for a coffee or two.

At Ritual we find Ben Kaminsky behind the bar, then at Four Barrel: Zacharay Carlsen. Seems that no matter where you go in San Francisco there are coffee luminaries working and making your drink. It's actually nice to see working baristas doing what they do best.

My double shot prepared by's Zachary Carlsen.

As we hang at Four Barrel, their entire company is gathering for some sort of rock concert/drinking outing. Last to arrive is Jeremy Tooker who hangs out for a little bit to chat.

In a little while, with a gift bag from Ryan Goodrow, we find ourselves back on Valencia heading to the Noe Valley for dinner and a nice welcome to San Francisco.

Eat That, Kettleman City!