Noe Valley Voice April 2009

Store Trek

By Lorraine Sanders

Store Trek is a regular Noe Valley Voice feature, profiling new stores and businesses in Noe Valley. This month, we visit a much-anticipated restaurant on Castro Street and a real estate office on 24th Street with deep roots in Noe Valley.

1320 Castro Street (at 24th Street)

Brett Emerson and Elan Drucker waited much longer than the average parents for their new baby to arrive.

"It's taken two-and-a-half years," Emerson estimates.

With visible amazement in her eyes, Drucker adds, "Our baby is so much bigger than we thought she was going to be. We didn't expect the response."

But theirs is no ordinary baby. It has a wood-burning oven and a heated patio with an organic vegetable garden, not to mention an enviable selection of Iberian wine.

Opened March 3 in the building that once housed Castro Computers (before it moved up the block), Contigo is the first of three restaurants given the green light to open in Noe Valley's main commercial corridor since a 19-year-old ban on new restaurants was amended in 2006.

For first-time owner and longtime chef Brett Emerson, the restaurant has been a labor of love, and in more ways than one.

To create a menu featuring small "pica-pica" plates (named after the Spanish word for "nibbles"), larger dishes or platillos, and Catalan flatbreads, Emerson drew heavily from the culinary traditions he fell in love with on annual trips to Spain over the past six years.

While preparing to bring a touch of Barcelona's romance to Noe Valley diners, he also discovered romance of his own.

During a chance conversation at Mission restaurant Bar Bambino some two years ago, Elan Drucker recognized Emerson from his popular food blog In Praise of Sardines (

"He said, 'If you like the food here, you should come to my restaurant,'" Drucker remembers.

Little did Drucker know that she'd one day be dating the chef and managing his cafe's operation.

Today, the couple live above the restaurant, whose name means "with you" in Spanish.

But a meal at Contigo offers more than a love story.

"We're offering flavors and flavor combinations you won't see at other restaurants, and certain products you won't see on other menus," says Emerson, who has worked at such Bay Area food heavens as Greens, LuLu, and Chez Panisse.

As an example, Emerson points to the sardinas fritas, a small plate of crispy fried sardine fillets with Meyer lemon, and judiones a la segoviana, a larger plate of pork belly, ears, and feet, with butter beans. On a typical evening, patrons can choose from 18 small plates (see below) and six platillos, featuring such entrees as lamb tagine with couscous, dates, turnips, and almond-cilantro salsa; sand dabs with artichokes and Romesco sauce; and "soupy" rice with asparagus, carrots, mushrooms, and egg.

Along with the pica-pica ($8, or three for $21) and platillos ($12 to $19), there are artisanal hams ($9, or three for $24) and coques, Catalan-style flatbreads fired in the wood-burning oven and seasoned with onion, bacon, or ham ($12 to $14).

For dessert, Contigo serves fried-to-order churros with Barcelona-style chocolate ($8), Catalan lemon custard ($7), and pistachio brown-butter cake with pears ($7.50), to name just a few.

The wine selection includes four cava (Spanish sparkling wine) choices by the glass, five by the bottle, as well as a moderately-priced list (bottles are $26 to $73) of white and red varietals from France, Spain, and Portugal.

Emerson takes pains to use ingredients from organic, local, and humane producers. In addition to receiving weekly and in some cases daily deliveries from area farms, the restaurant buys from the Noe Valley Farmers' Market and the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The back of the menu lists suppliers like Blue Bottle Coffee, Far West Fungi, Knoll, Field to Family Poultry, Clover Organic, and Acme Bread.

The restaurant's green tendencies don't end with the food. Working with Oakland-based firm Envelope Architecture and Design, Emerson was able to mill and reuse the building's original 100-year-old redwood siding for the restaurant's interior walls, create tabletops using Douglas fir beams once part of the Valencia Street Levi Strauss factory, and build banquettes and cabinets of white oak reclaimed after the demolition of a Connecticut barn. Along with recyclable stainless-steel fixtures, Contigo has eco-friendly flooring, fume-free paint, and ceramic tiles that were seconds (more likely cast-offs) from Sausalito company Heath Ceramics.

The mixture of wood, metal appliances, and tiles creates a space that is rustic and modern at the same time. A cheerful spring green hue on the outdoor patio's walls continues into the bi-level dining room, whose two seating areas can accommodate up to 60 guests among wooden tables and booths and along a small wine bar.

Two weeks after opening, Emerson and Drucker report that the restaurant is welcoming a steady stream of diners, some arriving as late as 10 p.m. on weeknights, even in early-to-bed Noe Valley.

"We're focusing on being a neighborhood restaurant," says Emerson.

Contigo opens nightly at 5:30 p.m. On Sunday through Thursday, the restaurant holds its last seating at 10 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, it seats guests until 11 p.m. Reservations are accepted for parties of six or more.

Here's a peek at the small plates on Contigo's menu for March 22. Go to to see the platillos and other menu items.

PICA-PICA (small plates)

Jardi (garden)
Spanish olives, fried Marcona almonds, pickled vegetables
Beets and clementines, almonds, sheep's milk ricotta, arugula
Chicory salad, Point Reyes blue cheese, apples, hazelnuts, vinagreta
Catalan-style chard with pine nuts, golden raisins, and garlic
Espárragos, asparagus, jamón chips, green garlic, sieved egg
Patatas bravas, fried potatoes with aioli, salsa brava

Mar (sea)
Montaditos, four assorted Basque-style nibbles on toasts
Remojón, salad of salted cod, oranges, olives, frisee
Pulpo, octopus, radishes, fennel, sunchokes, caper berries
Musclos de la barca, mussels with rosemary and garlic
Calamares a la plancha, local squid with harissa, arugula
Sardinas fritas, fried sardine fillets and bones, Meyer lemon

Granja (farm)
Tortillas de hongos, frittata of potatoes and black trumpets
Croquetas de bacalao, salt cod fritters, mizuna
Patatas a la Riojana, potatoes stewed with chorizo, onion
Albóndigas, lamb and pork meatballs, almond garlic sauce
Bocadillo de cerdo, pork belly, harissa alioli, pickled onions
Callos Madrileños, tripe and chickpeas from the wood oven

Brown & Co. Noe Valley
4156 24th Street at Diamond

To say that the Noe Valley outpost of real estate company Brown & Co. offers agents who know the neighborhood is something of an understatement.

Now five agents strong, the 24th Street office, which debuted last June in the space formerly occupied by flower shop Indigo V, is headed up by longtime local resident Pete Brannigan.

"I grew up in Noe Valley, and so I do a lot of business here," Brannigan says.

Now living adjacent to the Noe Courts park on Homestead, Brannigan was raised in a home on 26th Street near Noe Street and attended St. Paul's School before going on to St. Ignatius, City College, and San Francisco State. Prior to joining Brown & Co., Brannigan spent 18 years working with B.J. Droubi & Company [now the Droubi Team], another neighborhood real estate company.

Larger than the Brown & Co. office in the Marina neighborhood and smaller than the location on Monterey Boulevard, the 24th Street Brown & Co. offers real estate sales and services for commercial and residential San Francisco properties, including single-family homes, condominiums, and tenancy-in-common units. The company also develops multi-unit residential and commercial projects throughout the city and offers referrals to those seeking rental units.

"We're a full-service brokerage, which means we do everything," says agent Charlie Mader.

To transform the space from a flower shop into a real estate office, the company repainted the walls a light blue, installed cabinets and desks, and added a modern welcome area with a gray sofa, coffee table, and white chairs.

As for changes in Noe Valley real estate trends, Brannigan reports that locals still seem to be looking for the same types of homes these days--they just tend to want them for less.

He adds:

"That big four-bedroom home is still very sought-after, but buyers today are a little more practical than they have been in the last few years.... If they want five things, they wait until they find the house that has those five things. They are more particular about their choices and buying decisions."

Brown & Co. is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

--Lorraine Sanders