Coffee in the morning, wine in the evening, and good food throughout the day
Wine unlike, say, Coca-Cola has never been a big breakfast drink. Unless you count mimosas, which are basically an exercise in camouflage anyway, champagne bearded with orange juice to give the appearance of healthfulness. No, even the most dedicated wine-drinker must make do with something else in the morning, and that something else is probably coffee.
At Noeteca, a handsome establishment opened by Alex Kamprasert and Scott McDonald in early October on a residential stretch of Dolores Street in outer Noe Valley, the wine-bar aura is modified by glass cases of whole-bean coffee displayed just inside the door, next to a glass case full of pastries. You might feel slightly disoriented at the sight, as if you've drifted by mistake into a Starbucks. The coffee station is, in part, a bow to the space's previous tenant, the Last Laugh Café, and also a visual expression of Noeteca's commitment to be a kind of public "living room" that isn't just a place to gather in the evening although it is that but to visit in the morning or any time during the day. In this sense, despite the Italian-ish name, Noeteca's nearest relations are probably the wonderful cafes of Paris, those nameless but indispensable places where you can get an espresso early in the morning, a glass of wine late at night, and good food at any time.
Notwithstanding a similarity in philosophy, Noeteca doesn't look like any Paris café I've ever been in. It resembles, instead, a fusion of lounge (including, for enhancement of living-room atmospherics, a chaise or two in a far corner of the dining room), restaurant, and takeaway bar, and it manages all this in a fairly tight space. And while the food has some traditional Gallic touches, it's a little more eclectic than anything you'd likely find in a typical French café. As for the wines: the by-the-glass list is lengthy, worldly, and reasonably priced, with in a welcome touch pours available in half- as well as full sizes. Need a switch from Cotes du Rhone? Try a hit of Polesio, a tight, quick-on-its-feet wine made from Sangiovese grapes in Italy's little-known Marche region along the Adriatic.
Since the closing of mc2 in the first dot-com Götterdammerung, the Alsatian specialty tarte flambé, a pizza-like flatbread topped with onions, bacon, and crème fraîche, has been a rare sighting in these parts. I don't remember seeing one for years, in fact, until recently it turned up on Noeteca's menu ($7.95), with a lovely thin, blistered crust that was a bit softer and more luxurious than a typical pizza crust. The pie itself wasn't quite large enough to be a main course, but it did make a tasty, splittable starter.
Autumn means mushrooms and stew, and maybe mushroom stew ($10.95). Here the funghi included shiitake, portabella, and white button; they were swirled into a cream sauce heavy on pearl onions, then packaged in a nice earthenware crock under a gratin blanket of coarse bread crumbs. Very tasty and meaty, although the pearl onions did become oppressive. We couldn't finish them all.
Our old friend the croque monsieur basically a ham-and-cheese sandwich was cleverly recast here as croque napoleon ($8.95), an elegant, savory bread pudding layered with ham and cheese. The pudding was cut into thick slices that leaned against one another like dominoes under a slicking of mornay sauce. On the side: a heap of mixed baby greens dotted with cherry tomatoes. Little side salads like this turn up with many if not most of the larger courses; they are colorful and light but turn repetitive after a while.
One way to get around an uninvited little salad is to have a big salad, like Kris's chicken salad ($9.95). The theme here was deconstruction; the (chopped) chicken was mixed with pecans and red onions and molded into a disk that stood on one side of the plate, while on the other was the obligatory pile of baby greens and, all around, scatterings of cucumber coins and cherry tomatoes. The vinaigrette was simple but very good.
Given the display of sweets in the glass case at the door, it's not surprising that the desserts are pretty convincing. And there is at least one genuine star: the chocolate bomba ($6), a softball-sized shell of dark chocolate filled with vanilla and chocolate gelati. Eating it combined some of the pleasures of an Easter-morning hunt for hidden chocolate eggs and of breaking open a piñata. With drama and spectacle like that, the coppa catalana ($6), a version of crème brûlée, suffered slightly by comparison, although its caramel flavor was deep and its texture nicely balanced between firm and creamy. The bomba, incidentally, did not come from the glass case, but the coppa catalana might have. You should not construe these remarks as permission to have either of these delicacies for breakfast. Stick with a mimosa instead. *
Mon.Sat., 7 a.m9:45 p.m.; Sun., 7 a.m.3 p.m.
1551 Dolores, SF
Beer and wine