The Belle of the Ball
Does it ever feel like life is one big, long string of lurching from one fad or trend to another? Constantly looking for the next great thing that you should be doing or trying? I mean, I remember being a kid and going from football stickers to Pokemon. Then it was alternative music to bars and clubs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but I think it has conditioned me to be wary of foodie places that are described by local friends or travel sites as ‘must go’. Hey, it’s partly why I started this blog.
NoPa definitely fits into the category of trendy. I know this because when my friend and I walked past on Sunday around 10am, there was a queue round the corner already. Indeed, ringing on the 12th of December for a reservation is met with the apologetic but firm, ‘we have a space for two in mid-Jan’. So we should consider ourselves lucky we managed to snag a walk-in table a day later. Standing outside first thing when they open for evening service, paid off. This presents an interesting challenge, when you’re already meant to feel ‘lucky’, it’s always going to be difficult to live up to expectations. As my boss always says, ‘under promise, over deliver’. I’m not sure I ever got the hang of the later.
NoPa certainly looks the part. All dark wood and open spaces, including a kitchen that faces out. We’re seated on the balcony, so we get a great view of the chefs at work. It’s fair to say there’s a real buzz about the place. A mix of people out after work, friends catching up and dates looking to impress. It actually serves to stop NoPa ever feeling cliquey. This is a good thing, desirable food without the pretense is normally a good thing. Not only is it a pretty place, it’s also a slick place. The service runs like clockwork. It seemed I had just ordered my locally brewed IPA (a sweet, hoppy thing) than it appeared. Make no mistake, NoPa is the beautiful kid from your school who learned to pair it with charm and wit.
The menu is full of interesting combinations of seasonal produce. There’s wintery things to make you salivate, and the combination of small and big plates demands that you order lots. A word in my ear tempers my usual gluttony but there’s definitely a sense that there’s a lot for the greedy here. To start we tread the divide between ‘beef’ and ‘no beef’. By that I mean we ordered the slow-cooked brisket with polenta and the Brussels sprouts with pecans and kumquats.
I can honestly say that for the first time, there’s a very real contemplation that ‘no beef’ might just be a thing. The sprouts are crisp and charred with a sticky, smokey yet sweet bourbon caramel glaze. These are far from Christmas Day boiled sprouts and, if you haven’t already, will make you fall a little in love with them. The brisket holds up its end too, with a fruity chutney and herbs to cut through the richness. It has, however, very much been outshone.
The deluge of beef continues apace with a slow cooked, shin of beef for main. Cooked meltingly soft and served with roasted heritage carrots and parsnip crisps. It’s a never-ending, sticky and hearty affair that seems too much for anyone to actually finish in one sitting. A bag is ordered, as I’m unwilling to part with the remaining half, for fear that I might never come back.
I remember little else from the experience, sure my accomplice for the evening ordered another, equally great dish, but little else seemed to matter. I was completely enraptured by the mountainous beef and the charred sprouts. A worry crosses my mind that I would spend my evening after we left, looking at my phone and hoping it would text. This is memorable cooking, the kind you don’t want to share for fear that someone else realizes quite how good you’ve got it.
We could talk price – It’s at the more expensive end of the spectrum with dinner for two and cocktails coming in at $160, but when you look at comparative destinations this is actually not the most expensive I’ve encountered for a blowout dinner. The service, as you might expect from an American hotspot, is on point. Friendly without being over attentive, after all, occasionally it’s nice to play hard to get.
NoPa truly is the college prom queen (if I can’t use an American movie analogy now, when can i?). But this isn’t the airhead, style over substance that was in the latest RomCom blockbuster. There’s an assuredness and self-awareness about Nopa that really makes it shine. This is the popular kid that you desperately want to hate, but end up falling in love with.
Ever fall in love with someone?
Trends can come and go and fads are tiresome at the best of times. NoPa manages to sidestep expectations by being both trendy and delivering on a memorable meal. There’s an element of all of the positives and warmth of home cooking here, with seasonal produce and big flavours. It’s just refined to make you sit and play with your hair whilst you eat.