California gloss added to a solid Catalán base coat -- resulting in the authentic hubbub of a tapas spot
Photo by Rory McNamara

For a small restaurant, Contigo is physically complex. As you enter, you glide along a six-seat food bar at the edge of a display kitchen, while beyond the host's checkpoint opens a two-level dining room enclosed by white oak banquettes, like the remains of a Viking ship. (The wood was actually recovered from a Connecticut barn.) One sidewall consists of a bank of stainless-steel refrigerators, standing at attention like troops awaiting review; opposite is another bar — smaller, emphasizing wine, and partly recessed in the manner of a church nave. Beyond a wall of glass doors at the rear of the space is an enclosed garden, set with tables and space heaters and covered with a big sheet of clear plastic, since sunny Noe Valley can be surprisingly cold and windy.

Some years ago the city's Board of Supervisors imposed a kind of restaurant cap on Noe Valley: new establishments could open only in spaces being vacated by departing restaurants. As far as I know, Contigo (the name means "with you") is the first endeavor to breach this line. It occupies what had been a computer store. The restaurant's build-out has emphatically erased that past while honoring a green ethic, from the reuse of old siding as interior paneling to the deployment of glassware made from recycled wine bottles. To drive the point home, the paint scheme consists of green in several shades. I like green, but I like other colors too.

Apart from that small irritant, Contigo is as good-looking a new restaurant as I've visited in a long time. It manages to be modern, slick, and warm without growing sweaty from the effort, and it would probably look quite at home on a little street near the Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona's Eixample. Chef/owner Bret Emerson's Spanish-Catalán food would probably be a hit there, too, since the cooking honors both its traditional Iberian roots and our local ecological imperative; Cataluña, birthplace of Miró, Picasso, and Casals, has long been Spain's most sophisticated and forward-thinking region.

The menu tilts toward smaller plates ("pica-pica") but also offers larger dishes and includes separate sections for hams and cheeses. (Spain's air-cured hams, the most famous of which are serrano and ibérico, are worthy rivals to their more famous Italian cousin, prosciutto.) The smaller plates ($8 each, or $7 each for three or more) are divided among jardi (garden), mar (sea), and granja (farm) — or, roughly, vegetables, seafood, and meat. They could also be divided among the familiar, familiar with a twist, and unexpected.

Patatas bravas, for instance, could be the classic tapa, and Contigo's version, finished with a peppery salsa brava and a big puff of aioli, is classic. But the potato quarters are wonderfully crusty, making them competitive with french fries and allaying the unease of persons (some of them known to me) who dislike soft, mushy, or mealy potatoes.

We did find the tacopi butter beans — big white beans, like cannellini — to be overcooked and a little floury. But the shallow bath they swam in, of erbette chard and sofrito (tomato-less here), was full of assuaging flavor.

Among the familiar we would also put albóndigas, the little meatballs — I have rarely seen a tapas menu without some version — but here they're served in a shallow pool of ajo blanco, a white gazpacho made slightly grainy by the presence of pulverized almonds.

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