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First Bite: Nojo, the City's Newest Izakaya, Ends Sweetly

Photo by MJC on Flickr (From left: beef tartare, tsukune with egg yolk sauce and beef heart)

Who made 2011 the year of the izakaya? Nombe got its new chef, Chotto had just squeaked onto the scene, Hecho with its sushi and robata followed suit, and now Nojo has opened in Hayes Valley. (Not to mention, SF already had Izakaya Sozai, and the drunken institution called Oyaji.)

Nojo, which means "farm" in Japanese, is the most earnest of the bunch. The cooks wear t-shirts that say "Support Your Local Nojo" and the menu has a list of the day's nojos, from County Line, to Mariquita, to Star Route. With walls of windows and well-behaved staff, it doesn't feel like the dim kind of place you went to in Tokyo and drank too much sake that one night. It's got an undeniable California bent to it.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. The food at Nojo is very good. The chef is Greg Dunmore, formerly the executive chef at Ame and a longtime student of chef Hiro Sone. Thom Fox—the former Acme Chophouse chef and a long time proponent of the sustainable/local movement—is also helping out a bit and anywhere Fox goes, you know you're in good hands.

Word on the street has it that the beef heart sells out fast, so if it's on the menu (which it wasn't the night I went) order it before the offal-crazed diner next to you at the bar challenges you to a skewer joust. Instead, I had a crunchy and refreshing dish of japanese cucumber tossed with nori and shichimi and a Little Gem salad with katsuo bushi (something that you might know as bonito flakes), followed by a delicate and comforting chawanmushi, the classic savory egg custard, with crab and green garlic. The gyoza were a bit bulky for my taste, but the white miso–glazed McFarland Springs trout with fava beans—almost smoky from being pan-seared—was light and delicious. I also tried the chicken "on a stick," as they put it cheekily—in particular the chicken thigh with green onion and tare (teriyaki sauce). It's simple and understated food, but all very tasty.

The shot in the arm came with the surprisingly delightful dessert menu—a really fun fusion of Japanese ideas and flavors. We had the Nojo sundae made with black sesame ice cream on top of crunchy "peanut thunder crackers" (which was kind of like peanut brittle cereal) topped with candied kumquats, as well as buckwheat crepes with ginger muscavado syrup, all topped with white miso ice cream, which had just a tiny amount of savory saltiness to it. With the help of my friends, I polished both desserts off and left Nojo with sweet memories.

Nojo, 231 Franklin St. at Hayes, 415-896-4587