In January, the Mission's Nombe izakaya brought on chef Vincent Schofield to replace Nicholas Balla, who had shuffled over to a little spot nearby called Bar Tartine (more on that here). So the world turns in the realm of chefs and restaurants. Although Balla is a bit of a golden boy in these parts—earning rave reviews from almost everyone who tastes his food—Schofield is no slacker. Besides forging ahead on a new direction at Nombe, he just opened Parkmerced taqueria Taco Libre and regularly checks in on the kitchen at SoMa's miniscule Darwin (212 Ritch Street). In early January, Schofield embarked on a prodigious journey to Tokyo with Nombe owner Mari Takahashi for a crash course in all things Japanese. So the big menu changes he implemented over the last month at Nombe come truly inspired. Schofield took some time out to give us the skinny.
When was your research trip to Tokyo? From December 27th to January 13th
Tell me everything. It was a very exciting adventure. Mari left no stone unturned for me in any way. We dined in many izakayas and high-end Japanese restaurants, saw many historical sights and ate all the traditional street food made during the New Year. I worked in four spots: a ramen house, two izakayas and a fine-dining restaurant. I have to say, the most memorable part of the trip was New Year's Day breakfast before going to pray at the Shinto Shrine. Mari made a mochi soup and I followed it up with a not-so-traditional Mexican dinner of pollo con mole.
What was your favorite izakaya? The most inspiring was Uokin; they only served fish dishes and the food was amazing as well as the shochu and sake. It was there that I was able to try some things that would not be kosher in an American establishment, but were pretty damn tasty.
I know you haven't had a ton of experience with Japanese cuisine in the past. What was your biggest takeaway from the trip? I really gained an understanding for the Japanese way of highlighting such simple ingredients and allowing them to shine through in a subtle way. And sake, sake, sake. Man those guys can drink.
What were you most excited to get into when you returned? I really wanted to use my new Aritsugu knives. When I first got back, I was cutting everything as if it was sashimi: veggies, meat, you name it. I was really inspired to make dashi; but the right way, the way I was taught in Japan.
What are some things you're doing in the kitchen right now? Playing with beef tongue, expanding sashimi and vegetable options, looking for new ways to use offal: in ramen and sashimi. I've been playing with the idea of a pig stomach sashimi. Mari and I had it in Japan and it was delicious.
What are your favorite items on the menu right now? Our grilled beef tongue with peashoot shiso, ramen and the little gem salad with soft tofu, lotus chips and ume dressing.
What are you planning to add in the future?
More desserts, house-made ice creams and traditional Japanese desserts, especially when summertime comes and berries are abundant.
How would you say the menu has changed since you came on? Mari and I have worked to give each dish its own individual flavor profile. We've always been a seasonal restaurant and will continue to let the seasons guide us.
What else? Ramen is very different from before. We have two options: tonkotsu (white broth) comes with chashu (braised pork), soy-cooked egg, bean sprouts, kombu, ginger, scallions and sesame seeds; and black tan tan men (sesame-based black pork broth) comes with spicy ground pork, bok choy, soy-cooked egg and chili threads.
Has the tsunami greatly affected what you can source at the restaurant? Yes. Sake from the Tohoku region was hit the hardest; but we are more concerened about our friends and family over there. Our passion for Japanese culture and cuisine has only intensified since the earthquake. We feature a different dish each night with proceeds going to the victims. Follow @nombe for the dish of the night.