We have a new favorite restaurant.
Full disclosure: Chef-owner Brett Emerson is a personal friend and fellow blogger. And his restaurant is two blocks from our home, in an area where there is a relative dearth of good restaurants. So, we have a vested interest in seeing Contigo succeed. But I can say, having grazed our way through the ever-changing menu four times in as many weeks, that we would be enamored of this restaurant under any circumstances.
Loyal readers and friends know that DPaul and I spent a month in Spain back in 2001. We began our journey in Catalonia, first with a few days in Sitges to cleanse our palates, and then on to five days in the magnificent city of Barcelona. We had little experience with Spanish food, much less Catalan, and happily delved into it expecting it would be much like our trips through Italy.
While Spain and Italy may face each other across a vast sea and have shared roots going back millennia, their similarities, certainly on the culinary front, are few. We adapted quickly to this new diet of oily fishes, crispy fried croquetas and, above all else, pork pork porkity pork pork pork. But by the end of our month were desperate to eat anything other than Spanish food.
In our first week home, we indulged in all the pleasures endemic to San Francisco. Burritos! Sushi! We traipsed through our regular haunts, reacquainting ourselves with the food addictions we had established here.
And then, on the fifth day or so, the craving struck. Evening came, and the tapas, they were not there. Has anyone noticed my glass has no sherry in it? Where, for the love of all that is good and beautiful in the world, is my jamòn? We were faced with a void that needed to be filled, and would not be satisfactorily for a long time to come.
Well, our wait is over. After three years of hand-wringing, white-knuckled, hair-rending anticipation, Brett opened his Catalan-inspired restaurant in our own Noe Valley. During this period, we rooted from the sidelines, cringed with every pitfall, and cheered at each achievement. Seriously -- read the blog and experience the drama.
And while he struggled to actualize his dream, we couldn't help but worry. What if it didn't come together? What if the critics didn't like it? Worse, what if WE didn't like it?
Our worries were allayed in the first visit. Well, actually, the second. Our first foray into the restaurant (post-opening) was at 8 pm on the second day they were open, and we would have had to wait an hour or more for a seat. We decided to return later. Two days later. With entourage. And again the next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.
So much about Contigo's menu appeals; it's the way both of us like to order food. We've started every evening with a glass of sherry or cava and an order of jamòn -- usually the precious and rarefied jamòn iberico, with its silky texture and nutty flavor, though a recent substitution of jamòn de paleta was no less spectacular.
We then delve into the variety of pica-pica, or small plates. The selection is ever-changing, but a few things persist. There are always croquetas, and they are always excellent -- though if you are especially lucky they will be oxtail. The Galician-style octopus with potatoes is exquisite, and fully reminiscent of the same dish we had in Spain. Plump little albòndigas, meatballs, burst with flavor. A decadent bocadillo of pork belly or dish of butter beans with pig's ears and trotters further fulfills the visceral pig cravings.
We treat the mains in the same ways as the pica-pica, as splittable nibbles. Fluffy, fragrant coques, or flatbreads, come out from the wood-fired oven warm and smoky, and great for sharing. And we recently adored a tender, medium-rare flatiron steak with fried onions and cheese.
I am chagrinned to say that we have not yet partaken of the restaurant's prized dessert offering, extra-rich hot chocolate with churros. But mark my words, we will.
The place is popular, which is a very good problem to have. We have the luxury of proximity and so can arrive at the crack of 5:30; often there's a line by 6. So go early, go late or go on a Monday ... but do go.
1320 Castro St (at 24th)
Do read Brett's scintillating blog.