Talking Meat, Eating Veggies, at Nopa Restaurant
When I relaunched this site a few days ago, one of the things I wanted to do was give you a seat at the table for some hang time with chefs, which inevitably produces something worth sharing, whether it be a nugget of industry insight, or simply a war story, anecdote, or memorable quip.
So, here’s the first: I spent Saturday in San Francisco with my good pal Jimmy Bradley, chef-owner of The Red Cat and The Harrison in New York City. During an evening divided between drinks at the Hotel Huntington bar and dinner at Nopa restaurant (both with a civilian friend along for the ride) we lapsed into a running discussion of the distinct challenge of cooking meat to its proper doneness, and the madness to which it can drive toques.
Can’t remember how or why it came up, but Jimmy told the story of how, years ago, while working the sauté station at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, he tried to warn the kid on the meat station next to him that he had been cooking various cuts to the wrong degree of doneness all night long.
And how did Jimmy, standing several feet away, know this?
“As with anything that’s blue collar and repetitive in nature, you learn things over the years,” he said. “Meat starts out red and ends up gray; in between, there are shades of both, and of brown.” But the answer goes beyond that: Most seasoned chefs will tell you they can just look at a piece of meat and tell what doneness it is, or at a piece of fish and know if it’s cooked through or not, but none can quite put words to what they see, beyond color cues, that reveals this; it’s an intuition that must be earned personally.
Anyway, the guy didn’t heed Jimmy’s warning, and put up three pieces of overcooked filet mignon, their shortcomings as apparent to the chef as they had been to Jimmy. Already reeling from the mounting pressure of an intense service, the chef went ballistic, chucking piece after piece of meat right at the cook’s head.
This, in turn, reminded me of a story, witnessed firsthand while trailing in a South Beach, Miami, restaurant many years ago, that involved a customer who couldn’t get no satisfaction with a rack of lamb. After it had been sent out to the dining room, a waiter returned the lamb to the kitchen, reporting that the guest wanted it more well done. Though slammed, the meat cook was happy to comply, slipped it under the salamander (broiler) for a bit, and sent it back out.
Minutes later, the lamb again came back, and the exercise was repeated.
When the lamb returned a third time, the chef snatched the plate from the waiter, stomped to the pastry station, and took the brulee torch (used to melt and burnish the sugar atop a creme brulee) in hand.
“I’ll show you fucking well done,” he growled, and proceeded to torch the poor meat into submission.
And that was that; the lamb went back out, and the demanding diner, presumably elated with the incinerated protein, was never to be heard from again.
Ironically, we didn’t eat any meat at Nopa as we loaded up on a parade of starters from the daily-changing menu: Nantes carrots atop a bed of hummus, paired with a radish salad; a pile of “little fried fish,” pretty enough for a photo shoot, with a small dipping bowl of romesco; poached farm egg, Tasso-spiced ham, lacinato kale and acorn squash roasted and served with a bit of the skin intact, making true the restaurant’s promise of “urban rustic food;” a salad of mixed chicories, garlic croutons, cauliflower, pimeton and paltaleo (an aged goat cheese), the pimeton incorporated via a rust-hued dressing that hugged the chicories. This last one was addictive and delicious, and the thin shavings of cheese on top struck me as a casually brilliant inclusion. (Jimmy loved it but found the decision less bold. “Don’t you know that cheese makes any salad better?” he chided.)
These and other dishes were all just terrific, enjoyed from a second floor perch that gave us a generous view of the dining room and open kitchen below. Service, too, was wonderful, and our crack waiter, who’s been at Nopa since it opened six years ago, buttered up us New Yorkers when he DIDN’T ATTEMPT AN UPSELL ON THE WATER! “Do you want a few minutes with your menu?” he asked. “Want to order a drink, or should I just go get your water?” This almost brought a tear to my eye. “Should I just go get your water?” What a simple, charming, downright humane notion. There was no insulting reference to “tap,” no need to confer with my tablemates. “Should I just go get your water.” This was as memorable to me as “I”m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” or “E.T. phone home”—a classic line that will be forever etched in my memory, a seven-word paean to a bygone era of hospitality and hydration.
Speaking of memorable one-liners, Jimmy offered up another one before the night was over: a few years back, he and his now-ex-business partner, Danny Abrams, opened a restaurant called Pace in Tribeca. I italicize the name because it’s the Italian word for “peace,” which was the co-owners’ intended pronunciation and meaning. But most customers didn’t get it, using the American word rather than the Italian PAH-CHE. This became a bit of a sore point between Jimmy and, well, everybody involved, because he was the only one who liked it. “If you can’t have a name that encourages world peace,” he said in his self-defense Saturday night, “then that’s just sad.”
Anyway, the place never caught on. As the customers dwindled and signs of life diminished, Jimmy found himself standing around aimlessly with Danny at the door one night, waiting for somebody, anybody, to come in for dinner.
Finally, a lone woman customer pushed the door open. The boys were delighted to see her, until she laid a new and theretofore undiscovered mispronunciation on them:
“Is this place passé?”she asked.
Without missing a beat, Danny deadpanned: “Give us a few weeks.”
I left Jimmy in San Francisco Sunday morning, and made the drive up to Chefs’ Holidays at the Ahwahnee Hotel, where he’ll join me on Wednesday. Between now and then, I’ll be moderating cooking demos with chefs Peter Chastain, Emily Luchetti, and Sean Baker… we’ll see what stories they might have to share in the coming days.