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A Love Letter to Spain

Generally, nostalgia is at the heart of cooking, as the flavors and smells from the kitchen serve to transport you to your fondest memories. Some chefs, however, daringly try to take it a step further by recreating the experience entirely. Meet Noe Valley’s newest dining destination: Contigo, which opened in March.

Inspired by summers spent in Spain (Barcelona in particular), Contigo is the first restaurant from chef/co-owner Brett Emerson. Meant to evoke the casual and convivial spirit of dining on the Iberian Peninsula, but influenced by Emerson’s time at Bizou, Lulu, and Eccolo, both the space and the menu at Contigo are Spanish in concept and Californian in execution.

Although tapas are native to the south of Spain, Contigo takes the practice that these small bites should fuel bar hopping, and applies it to the predominant flavors of Catalonia. Translated through Emerson’s commitment to organic, local and ethical eating results in, as he puts it, “seasonal and sustainable California fare with a Spanish flair.” Or as we’ve discovered, fresh and inventive eats that can easily equal a meal, sans switching bar stools.

It took two painstaking years of planning and construction to transform an old computer shop into a compact neighborhood eatery. Divided into several distinct dining areas with split-levels, counter seating, an exposed kitchen and an enclosed courtyard, the same conscientious principles that dictate Contigo’s menu reflect the restaurant’s build-out. From repurposing wood into cedar-colored benches (whose curves mimic old boats) to using glasses made from wine bottles, materials were largely recycled and reused, down to the very last detail.

Inside, reclaimed wood meets a wall of stainless steel refrigerators in a forging of rustic and modern that almost works -- it seems more like indecision than a union -- and while the kitchen’s wood-burning oven looks great from the street, its presence is missed in the dining room where the white walls bear nothing but paint. Dates, families and groups of friends enliven the space, however; the bustle and din of their bodies and conversations tend to offset the relatively sparse décor.

The menu is neatly organized to satisfy any range of hunger or curiosity, with pica-pica, or small plates ($8 each/$7 each for three or more), at the menu’s heart. Subsections jardí (garden), mar (sea) and granja (farm) highlight Emerson’s ability to let simple ingredients speak for themselves, while a few larger platillos, platters of cheese and Spain’s fabled jamón, round out the plethora of choices.

Although the menu changes daily according to the whims of the season, a few items are quickly becoming Contigo standards, and rightly so. The pork belly bocadillo with harissa alioli and pickled onions, and the oxtail croquetas with pine nuts, raisins and mizuna are bold, rich and expertly executed, improved variations of the Spanish dishes from which they originate.

On the night of our visit, the pulpo salad with fennel, grapefruit and black olives was an unexpected delight, texture and tang in harmonious juxtaposition, while the local porcini mushrooms a la plancha with parsley and ancho cress were meaty and firm, exemplifying Contigo’s focus on quality.

Clams “Cal Pep” style with jamón, garlic and manzanilla sherry were also good, but the flavors became slightly muddled and the liquid was seasoned beyond brine and into salt. In contrast, the Iacopi Farms butter beans and greens cooked with sofrito lacked the depth central to this principal sauce that characterizes Catalan cuisine -- the addition of salt at the table brought this dish back to life.

The slow-roasted Duroc pork shoulder with zucchini and basil ($18), our only entrée of the evening, was braised for several hours in the wood-burning oven. Moist and fork-tender, the pork had taken on the intense aroma and flavor of a campfire, flooding the mouth with the seductive taste of smoke. The diced zucchini and basil, however, was sautéed too long and arrived mushy, doing little to support or contrast the bold flavors of the smoldering pork.

Sourced primarily from California, Spain, and France, the carefully selected wine list complements the food nicely, with 13 of the 27 bottles offered by the glass/carafe. Admirably, all of the five cavas are available by the glass, and are both authentic and ideal to sip while grazing and conversing. Try the Mont Marcal Rosado ($8), which tastes distinctly of raspberries, or swing for the crisp, toasty Gramona “Imperial” ($12) -- this cava is simply outstanding.

There is also sherry, cider, and beer, including Barcelona’s ubiquitous lager, Estrella Damm ($4). A variety of housemade sparkling sodas are also available, and an in-house water filtration system offers diners water either sparkling or still, without any pesky bottles to dispose of.

There are seven desserts, including housemade helados and a salted caramel flan ($7) that we’ll be sure to try next time, but the chocolate caliente ($4) con churros (add $4) is undoubtedly the most popular on the list. Though thicker than its American counterpart, Contigo’s hot chocolate is still not quite the dense, near-batter, molten hot chocolate served in Barcelona. No complaints for the flavor, though, and the fried-to-order churros are a non-negotiable must.

Service on the night of our visit was exceptional. When we asked our server about a dish, he described in detail the preparation (not simply reciting the ingredient list as written on the menu). When we asked about wine, he brought us tastes and explained his preferences. He spent time with us and took care of us, but he also knew when to leave us alone. He seemed completely at ease and in control of a bustling and busy dining room.

Emerson himself was on the line, carefully inspecting each dish before it went out to a table; wiping a plate’s edges, delicately placing a garnish, his eyes equally attentive to the kitchen and to the dining room born of his dedication.

Emerson has created a tangible souvenir of his travels in his first eatery, making it a place well worth visiting, and staying for a while.

Spanish Tapas
Noe Valley

Reservations only for parties of six or more.