French toast! The mere thought of it transports me back to my childhood. Weekend mornings would find me at the kitchen counter, methodically dipping slices of white bread into a bowl of liquid gold. My mom would walk over from the stovetop and slide a spatula under each soggy square. Into a screaming-hot frying pan the slices would go; I’d listen with pleasure to the sizzle of egg meeting oil. The wedges of French toast would emerge from the pan crispy and golden, only to deflate rather unimpressively seconds later. No matter. There was nothing more glamorous to the child of an immigrant than a classic American breakfast. Nevermind that I didn’t know about traditional pats of butter or ramekins of maple syrup. I had my mom, my toast, and my Saturday morning cartoons, and that was enough.
It’s this deeply sentimental, powerful memory that compels me to seek out French toast on brunch menus everywhere. Rarely, however, do I encounter a plate that I couldn’t make better myself. Granted, the formula is pretty simple and unexciting — but there should still be plenty of room for invention and perfection, right? … Well. Clearly my inappropriately strong feelings about French toast haven’t changed since childhood, but my standards have.
It was with hope, then, that I arrived at the beloved Nopa for a taste of their famous custard French toast.
I can’t say enough positive things about Nopa. It’s a cornerstone of San Francisco, with its creative menu, progressive ethic, thoughtful blog, industry-friendly hours, and, yes, weekend brunch reservations. It’s no secret that Nopa is at the top of the local food chain (waits can easily extend beyond two hours), so I wisely booked a table a month in advance. On the day of, we were seated and served promptly and kindly. Before we knew it, our hearty, wholesome appetizer had arrived: grilled whole-grain bread with Meyer lemon preserve and butter.
The wood grilled sage-garlic sausage with quinoa, arugula rabe, radish, lemon and poached eggs, was an addictive mix of textures and flavors: smoky meat, creamy yolk, tangy dressing, and nutty grains.
Upon the server’s suggestion, we added poached eggs to our order of slow-braised pork with creamy polenta, maitake mushrooms, cipollini onions, and balsamic. Despite being incredibly rich in flavor, it wasn’t too cloying or heavy — wonderfully balanced and savory.
Also on our table: butter-basted eggs and smoked duck breast with English peas, Mornay and grilled bread; and (not pictured) smoked trout and sea salt bagel, served with dill farmer’s cheese, cucumber and pickled onions. Both dishes were simple, artful, and totally satisfying.
The main event, of course, was the custard French toast with strawberries and homemade butter, which our server suggested that we share as a final course. We were stuffed by the time we’d finished our entrees, but, as soon as the plate hit the table, we all magically found room for dessert. I mean, just look at it (!!!). My knife cut through layers of texture: crispy, caramelized crust; vanilla-scented, moist middle; and delectable, creamy custard center. The fresh, syrupy fruit was a perfect, subtly sweet accompaniment, but there was plenty of quality butter and real maple syrup to be had as well. I’d been afraid that Nopa’s brunch would be overhyped, but now my fear is that I will have to wait too long to have it again. I’ve found my new favorite French toast — or, at least, the best I’ve had sans Saturday morning cartoons.
560 Divisadero St
San Francisco, CA 94117