I have eaten food all over the world. I have been in a lot of restaurants, and hope to go to many, many more in this lifetime. But I’m about to make a pronouncement I never thought I’d actually make: I have found my favorite restaurant.
I’ve made no secret of my love of tapas. I also adore restaurants (or, really, any business) with a sense of their impact on the world around them; places that are warm, friendly, sustainable, and supportive of local producers; and being surrounded by friends. For this reason, I’m in absolute love with Contigo, which opened in San Francisco’s Noe Valley at the beginning of March. It’s got all of it: the tapas, the friends, the low environmental impact and the respect for the local.
Brett Emerson owns Contigo, and chronicled his two-year saga of trying to open the restaurant on his food blog, In Praise of Sardines. I came to the story late in the process, but admit it didn’t take me long to catch up on the tale in progress, and to join Brett’s cheering section.
At Contigo, there are Pica-Picas, which are the Barcelona version of tapas. Shifting seasonally, they feature options from the garden, the sea or the land. When I first visited, less than a week after the official opening, the menu featured calamares a la plancha, a wonderful dish of local squid with a lick-your-fingers-good harissa sauce and arugula. Tonight’s visit featured the local squid again, but this time, in a nod to their short season, it was matched with fava beans in a squid ink sauce with chorizo oil.
There is ham and cheese at Contigo, but not ordinary ham and cheese, by any stretch. They offer Jamón, whether that’s Serrano Reserva or, occasionally, Iowa’s own La Quercia Prosciutto Americano, which I still remember trying for the first time on the end of a toothpick in the New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City, just before their product exploded onto the national food scene. And the cheeses are thoughtfully selected and artisanal. Not to mention, there’s the Bikini, a panini with ham, a Spanish cheese, and membrillo. “I want to eat this every day,” said my friend Alexis of the Bikini we split during my first visit.
For those looking for a more substantial entrée, there are Platillos, which include a couple of featured Cocas, flatbreads cooked in the welcoming wood-fired oven that sits next to the restaurant’s front window. They come topped, generally, with a vegetarian or a meaty option, depending on the season. On my first visit, Alexis and I split the Coca amb pernil (Jamón, manchego and arugula), and this time around, my friend Sandra and I split the Coca with artichokes, spring onion and rosemary. The Platillos also include other options such as a flat iron steak, a lamb tagine or a seasonal fish dish.
Dessert is becoming more and more of an event at Contigo, which is a challenge, because saving room for it is difficult. The churros y chocolate have been on the menu since the beginning, and you can’t really go wrong with them. But on my first visit, I asked Chef Brett Emerson’s partner, Elan Drucker, for a recommendation. She steered us toward the brown butter hazelnut cake, which, she said, she had tasted months before when she and Brett were first dating and he was working on the recipe. She hadn’t tasted it again until the restaurant opened. “It is such a food memory for me,” she said.
And the cake, which we savored along with the last of our wine, was a revelation. Delicious, sweet but not overwhelming, dense but not dry. It was the beginning of a series of food memories I plan to make at Contigo.
“I can see why you like it,” said Sandra. “Even the name is great.”
Here are some more early impression write-ups of Contigo:
And I have a Flickr set of Contigo pictures available, as well.