Japanese Small Plates, Now Local

By Jarrod Shappell

The first time that I went to Nojo, I couldn’t get a table. Hayes Valley’s newest Japanese restaurant has been bustling since its opening over five months ago. Thankfully I am persistent, and I savored one of my favorite meals in recent memory.

While distinctly Japanese, Gregory Dunmore’s Hayes Valley restaurant is not pretentious and is very hospitable. After a short wait we sat down at our table. The attentive server introduced us to the menu and told us to “take our time” and “order a lot of things.” We did not argue.

The menu is vast and everything sounds delicious. While the menu is primarily organized into two categories (“on a stick” and “not on a stick”) words like shungiku and nameko were unfamiliar to me. Confused and knowing that we needed to “order a lot of things”, my eyes wandered the restaurant. The table next to us had the tempura vegetables and appeared to love them. Other dishes passed by and I inched up out of my chair to get a look or smell of what was coming out of the busy kitchen.

The kitchen is one of the unique features of Nojo. As we looked toward the kitchen we could see dishes being prepared and passed to servers. There is almost no separation from the dining area to the seating area. It makes you feel like you have a back stage pass for a culinary performance.

And what a performance it was. We started with the tataki – a melt in your mouth tuna that was not too fishy and was served with fresh tomatoes and thinly sliced radishes. This was no opening act, it was a delicious first course that was both authentically Japanese and Californian. Then we had the bacon wrapped cherry tomatoes with lettuce sauce. They were decadent and disappeared off my plate in seconds.

Before I continue, I must warn you that the Nojo menu is seasonal and thus these items may or may not be available. I just thought you should know.

Then we had the almond pork rice balls. They were crisp on the outside, warm and comforting inside, and served with just enough miso mustard to add some bite. We also had the tsukune with egg yolk sauce (on a stick). It was very moist on the inside and perfectly balanced with a small amount of the subtly sweet sauce.

All the while our servers were very helpful and right on target in helping us choose sakes that were to our taste.

We couldn’t miss dessert, and as suggested, ordered a lot of it. The Nojo sundae is constructed with sesame ice cream, thunder crackers (imagine a rice krispie treat and granola hybrid) and fresh berries. Although a sundae, it was light and not too sweet. We also ordered the red miso poached peach. The homemade mochi was perfect in texture and a great complement to the peaches. Both desserts were excellent.

From start to finish, Nojo is worth the wait. Hayes Valley should be proud to have such a local, authentic Japanese dinner experience.