Three people with one thing in common—a love for Japanese food—meet through the Small Business Association and decide to go in on a restaurant concept together. They take over a funky space—a former taqueria on Mission Street, that was a 50s diner before that—complete with a huge arched mirror and black-and-white checked floors; change little; insert an izakaya restaurant; tack a banner out front advertising the name Nombe (which translates from Japanese to something to the effect of “boozer”) and open the doors until 2 am on weekends.
This might sound like a recipe for restaurant disaster, but Nombe is turning out some of the best Japanese food in SF right now. The restaurant is owned by an unlikely trio: Mari Takahashi and her husband Gil Payne (who owned the now closed Sozai) along with chef Nicolaus Balla, the shy and lanky Japanophile who earned O Izakaya Lounge in Japantown three stars from Bauer.
Although I found myself reveling a bit in the oddball setting, Balla’s excellent cooking shines in the midst of all this; it's a testament to his talent. We sat at the small counter where Takahashi was pouring beer and sake while Balla sent out the food. We started with roasted beets tossed with nothing more than a tingle of freshly grated wasabi and a rustic, warming stew of pork spare ribs in a black bean broth (as in black soy beans). The agedashi tofu was fried just right (lightly) and piled with bonito flakes, and Bella’s signature tangy, fried chicken wings—crispy with a rice flour coating—are almost Mexican in flavor: limey and chili-y with a sweet honey base and a shower of cilantro.
Balla is also doing traditional yakimono, grilled skewers of everything from chicken thigh with ume and shiso (delicious) and chicken skin (not crisp enough to be delicious). He also sent out a great salad of fried calamari tossed with fresh mizuna. But perhaps the most beautiful thing we had was local halibut sashimi on thinly sliced fennel, with hijiki seaweed, grapefruit and sesame seeds. It was perfect.
Anyone who has traveled in Japan will recognize that Balla knows his stuff. His experience includes a stage (a kitchen internship) at Michelin three-star Tsukiji Tamura. Eating at Nombe, I couldn’t help think that Balla's food in a slicker environment (it wouldn’t take much) could become the Slanted Door of Japanese cooking. But looking around me at the assortment of hipsters and Missionites enjoying the the DIY space, I also felt like Nombe’s charm might be in the present details. (Note to self: Two things I need to get back to Nombe for include the ramen and the 11 pm-and-on late-night street food menu.)
As a side note, Balla, himself is from the US but grew up predominately in Eastern Europe. His next restaurant, he told me, he’s hoping will be Hungarian. Which, like Nombe, makes no sense and complete sense all at once.