Japan is known to have some of the strangest porn in the world. Browse the web and you’ll find all manner of fetishism: including businessmen wearing diapers and being tended to by their “mom”s, manga diehards blissfully making out with their anime blow-up dolls, and "furries" getting it on in unicorn costumes. Truth.
There is only one kind of Japanese porn for me: food porn. I love the ridiculously cute websites that worship bento boxes and fawn over wagashi sweets. Their fans have a non-sexual, yet truly obsessive relationship with food that I can relate to. Maybe that's why when nojo opens in my 'hood of Hayes Valley, I decide to grab my camera and join in on the fun.
Luckily, nojo's owner-chef (and former executive chef at ame) Greg Dunmore, is happy to have me come check out the joint. After three extended trips to Japan, he’s a man on a mission – to introduce yakitori and izakaya-style food to as many people as possible.
In case you need a primer (I did), izakayas are the watering holes in Japan where salaried folk go après-work to get saucy and satiate their growling stomachs. They have an eclectic menu of bar foods, but most people go for the yakitori – skewered meats eaten straight off the grill.
On a Thursday night at 8 p.m., nojo is packed, and even with the buzzing crowd I can feel its feng shui. There are no vintage artworks or hints of nostalgia here – just solid, modern Japanese design with warm, glowing lamps overhead. Behind the counter, Greg and his crew pass steaming pans back and forth in plain view. Did I mention I’m hungry? My boyfriend and I order way too much food, gulp down our sakes, and wait in anticipation.
The escarole, lemon-soy, and katsuobushi salad is the first dish to arrive. One forkful reveals it’s bright and delicious. Katsuobushi are shavings from dried and smoked skipjack tuna. They are known as "dancing fish flakes" in Japan because of the way they wriggle when they’re added to a hot dish. If beef jerky were made of fish and shaved into paper thin strips, it would taste like katsuobushi.
We make friendly with our server, who speaks easily to the menu. It turns out the servers are cooks and the cooks are servers at nojo. Everyone touches the food, and the tips are split equally. In fact, nojo practices kikubari, which literally means “to distribute one’s spirit.” Greg's employees are trained to be humble and anticipate the needs of others at all times.
I'm quickly distracted by the sautéed mochi with nori and shoyu butter sauce – savory and smooth, it melts on my tongue like butta. The prawn, Napa cabbage, and shungiku salad is served to us right afterward, and it’s a nice contrast to the texture of the mochi dish – the crustaceans are so fresh they almost pop in my mouth.
The greens are beautiful, and I remember Greg telling me everything on the menu is sourced from farms near San Francisco (nojo means farm in Japanese). Greg even hunted down a nearby Japanese-American-owned estate named Toyo to find rare vegetables that were only being sold in Japantown. The guy is serious.
Yakitori! It’s time for skewers. The chicken breast with umeboshi (pickled plums) and shiso (an herb) shows up, and the meat is tender – cooked just long enough to be considered legal. The red sauce on top throws me for a second – it’s sweet and salty all at the same time, with a hint of something exotic. I’m quickly learning these moments of revelation are what nojo is all about.
I take careful note of the tare – the sweetened, thickened soy sauce Greg uses for grilling. Each chef has their own unique recipe, and the couple who have semi-adopted Greg in Japan (Yoko and Tom, former restauratuers in the town of Kobe) cook with tare that is over 100 years old. Greg is catching up – his is only 1 year old.
Just as we’re starting to get full, the tsukune arrives. It’s a nice-sized hunk of chicken sausage served with a fresh egg yolk floating in its sauce. We stir the egg right in with a fork, and from there we dip, bite, and repeat. The sausage has a surprisingly bold flavor, and we learn almost an entire chicken is ground into it. Mental note for the future: tsukune plus a beer at happy hour = heaven.
The chicken skin and matcha sea salt skewer slides into view. With Meyer lemon squirted on top, it can only be described as finger lickin’ good. It’s pretty obviously the kissing cousin to the more nontraditional miso mustard glazed pork belly dish – the other greasiest (and therefore tastiest) item on the menu.
Though crab custard (chawanmushi, Dungeness crab, and green garlic) is not something I would normally order, it comes highly recommended by Greg so we give it a shot. The rich, savory texture of the chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) is a strange and wonderful contrast to the mouthwateringly fresh crab. It's perfect for this blustery, cold San Francisco evening.
The white miso glazed trout with komatsuna and yellow foot mushrooms appears next, and hands down, it’s my favorite dish of the night. I sprinkle a little lemon over the encrusted fish and my fork crunches down again and again, creating little totem poles of brothy mushrooms, greens, and hunks of fish.
Finally, it’s time to try the much buzzed about nojo Sundae with Humphry Slocombe ice cream. The black sesame ice cream itself is delicious and needs no accompaniment, though the tartness of the kumquats (sautéed in simple syrup) and the crunch of peanut thunder crackers give it a smart, fun twist.
For good measure, we order the buckwheat crepes with ginger Muscavado syrup and white miso ice cream. The ice cream must have been made by some mad genius. I could swear Humphry Slocombe and nojo are making love in my mouth.
Bellies full, we can’t eat another bite. Luckily, my epic rendezvous with nojo doesn’t have to end here. I can devour these dishes again and again when I look at the photos. This is the glory of food porn. Perhaps I will bring my camera to dine with me a little more often.
Head over to nojo at 231 Franklin (near Fell) to try yakitori and izakaya-style food at the hands of a chef who knows his stuff. The restaurant only takes reservations for parties larger than six. nojo can be reached at 415-896-4587.