At this moment at the cusp of spring the most happening restaurant in Noe Valley is Contigo, which opened early in March in what had been a computer store. The crowd promptly swooped, with a thickness and intensity not seen in the neighborhood since the launch of Fresca nearly four years ago and without, it seems, much in the way of worries about the economic meltdown. You step into Contigo, find yourself against a wall of chattering people, and step out. You step around the corner to City Grill and breathe more easily.
City Grill is the good new restaurant in Noe Valley no one has heard of. It opened in January in what had been the Kookez space (before that, Miss Millie's, and before that, Meat Market café) just a few steps away from Lupa. The owner of Lupa, Stefano Coppola, also has a hand in City Grill but there the similarities between the two places end. Lupa serves Roman-influenced food, while City Grill is a kind of nouvelle American diner whose nearest culinary relation is probably Firefly, just a few blocks up the street.
The word "grill" makes me think of a place that serves grilled-cheese sandwiches and bitter coffee, while "city grill" makes me think of some shiny, clattery spot downtown where politicians meet at lunchtime to eat steak and hatch plots. City Grill is neither; it is, instead, a wonderfully woody neighborhood restaurant that manages to preserve much of the past while offering excellent, modern food. I'd like to add "at modest prices," but perhaps price perception carries an element of relativity. City Grill is about equidistant from cheap and fancy. You can pay quite a bit more and not do much better, and you can also pay quite a bit less and not do much worse.
At least one welcome change from the Kookez regime is that the kid-proofed menus, laminated in plastic as at innumerable chain restaurants along the limitless interstates, are gone. City Grill is kid-friendly but doesn't go overboard about it. The space's most unusual feature, from a visual or aesthetic point of view, is the exhibition kitchen, which is in the front third of the restaurant where you might expect to find the bar rather than (as is more usual) in or at the rear. Since the kitchen bulges out into the dining space and is a beehive of constant activity, the diner's sense is of being in the audience at some sort of theater in the round, or near-round. Most of the tables and booths have some view of the animated troupe working the kitchen.
As to what emerges from the kitchen: it's good stuff, and this isn't surprising, given the quality of Coppola's nearby Lupa. Coppola has somehow managed to bring an Italian ethic of simplicity and straightforwardness to City Grill's Cal-American menu. Each dish tends to emphasize a single, principal ingredient, with additions and amendments deployed sparingly and quietly.
A broccoli soup ($6.50), for example, struck us as just broccoli in another form, puréed with some chicken stock, thickened with a bit of potato, and given a bit of tangy crunch by scatterings of croutons and Parmesan cheese. A bowl of mussels and frites ($9.50), meanwhile, was about as disciplined as it gets, with fat Prince Edward Island shellfish topped with a stack of golden fries and a sauce of white wine, garlic, butter, and streamers of tarragon for a bouillabaisse-like hint of licorice. Since we ran out of fries long before the liquid had been sopped up, we asked for a basket of bread. Odd that such a basket hadn't been brought when we were seated is this a new way for restaurants to cut back discreetly?