Dishing on Japanese Small Plates at Nombe in San Francisco

See recent posts by Carolyn Jung

It's never easy replacing a chef who has been with a restaurant since inception, especially one as talented as Nick Balla.

Balla opened the Japanese izakaya-style restaurant, Nombe in San Francisco, but departed at the end of last year -- but not before creating quite the impression. Balla, who visits Japan regularly, is such an astute study of traditional Japanese cuisine that his techniques even impressed a group of visiting Japanese chefs at a conference in St. Helena last year.

Balla, who also lived in Budapest for three years, is now at Bar Tartine in San Francisco, where he's putting his own spin on Eastern European food.

Replacing him at Nombe is Vince Scofield, who most recently cooked for Ebb & Flow in San Francisco. He also was the opening executive chef at Kabuki Kitchen in San Francisco. In addition to Nombe, he's involved with Darwin Cafe and Taco Libre, both in San Francisco.

Whew! Talk about a lot on his plate. But Scofield is giving it a valiant try at Nombe in the Mission District, a short drive from the Holiday Inn Civic Center San Francisco.

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Recently I was invited to be a guest at the restaurant to try his new dishes. The menu still has a wide array of small plates. Although you’ll find everything from grilled beef tongue to fried chicken liver to spicy grilled tripe, the menu is a little less progressive than it used to be.

The restaurant, a former taqueria and diner, is divided into two eclectic rooms. The back room is nightclub-dim, so sit in the front room if you really want to see your food.

Definitely have some sake, too, as the restaurant boasts more than 75 premium varieties to enjoy by the glass, flight, or bottle.

We started with a bowl of crisp taro chips ($4) served with a creamy edamame hummus dip that entirely resembled guacamole, but had a subtle bean-y flavor instead.

The sashimi sampler of five different types of seafood, including uni, butterfish, and halibut, was fresh and wonderful. But at $30 for 10 pieces — and pretty small ones at that — it was pretty pricey.

The skewers of chicken skin ($5) actually squirted juice when you bit into them. They were rich and salty, though not as crackling crisp as I’ve had elsewhere.

Fried chicken wings ($9) arrived in a bowl topped with a salty-sweet soy broth that had nice tang. But you’ll want to eat them fast, as the sauce will turn the coating of the ones at the bottom of the bowl rather soggy.

Hokkaido scallops ($14) were nicely seared and drizzled with uni butter. Tender, meaty butterfish ($13) arrived alongside spinach and melty leeks in miso that I just couldn’t spoon up fast enough.

Juicy slices of Kobe Bavette ($14) were sliced thin and fanned out on a plate with addicting soy-butter glazed baby potatoes.

Yaki Onigiri ($6 for two) is one of the truly great simple pleasures in life — rice balls brushed with soy, grilled until crusty on the outside, then garnished with strips of nori. It’s finger-food that’s pure comfort.

For dessert, we enjoyed a scoop of black sesame ice cream ($7) that was a powerhouse of sweet, savory, and nutty nuances, as well as a green tea panna cotta with a wonderful bitter edge.

Light eaters will be very satisfied at Nombe. For those with heftier appetites, just know that you may end up spending far more than you bargained for once all those little plates start piling up fast.

— Carolyn Jung of FoodGal

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