AL’s Place, the young Mission restaurant from chef Aaron London, was my last stop on a 48-hour Northern California eating trip. It was my third major meal of the day eaten quite happily alone, though hardly lonely with a humming restaurant around me.
I’d been incredibly curious about AL’s since I read Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appétit‘s praise for it. It wasn’t that he named it the Best New Restaurant in America, it was his description of the experience and the person who he found at the helm of it. Phrases like, “It was almost as though I’d been eating vegetables in black and white my whole life, and then suddenly everything was in Technicolor,” are pretty bold, and though I’ve always been in love with vegetables, like most junkies, I wanted to have my switch flipped and try a new high.
I serendipitously landed at the chef’s counter, at the last seat, closest to the kitchen and to chef Aaron who expedited from two ever-shifting rows of tickets. As I sipped a Domaine Collin Cremant de Limoux Rosé from the Languedoc, I watched him manipulate his paper keyboard of orders with the grace and vigor of a symphony conductor…albeit one who’s not afraid to leave his podium and grab an instrument out of his orchestra’s hands to show them how to play it properly, if necessary. With his man-bun and urchin-like botanical tattoos, Aaron tweaked the plating of a finished dish in the pass, added a dusting of sea salt or grind of pepper, and called out “Hands, please!” — his signal to his servers to come and pick up.
It was a Sunday evening at 7:30 and the restaurant was packed. Diners were hovering near the chef’s counter, saying preposterously touristy things like, “I’ll come in there and help you cook it, Son, if it means we’ll get sat any faster.” Aaron seemed to be doing five things at once: gently jushing young greens with his hands; checking the temp on a hangar steak by pressing it with his thumb; having a conversation with me as I told him what a shit photographer I am and then, of course, playing his ticket keyboard–but, even when a loitering patron offered to run some food for him, he kept his cool.
AL’s Place is a happy place. It’s the culmination of years of effort on the part of its chef. It’s the brick-and-mortar proof, filled to the gills, of his undeniable purpose. On that night, the uniform for employees was apparently wild shirts and unusual hairstyles (one male server rocked a French side-braid that would put any 1980s teenage girl to shame). When Aaron himself stepped over from his growing line of tickets to discuss my order, I hinted at my conundrum: when I looked at the five-part menu — Snackles, Cold/Cool, Warm/Hot, Sides and Limited Availability — I wanted everything, particularly the vegetable dishes and those that featured persimmon. (Everywhere I’d eaten over the last two days in California were celebrating persimmons’ prime moment to delightful effect and I wanted to see how this chef–who relegated meat to the Sides section on his menu–would honor them.) Aaron took the hint and said, “How about if we just cook for you?” which was exactly what I hoped he would say.
He sent out an order of his much buzzed about french fries so that I could “see what everyone is talking about” (Knowlton rhapsodized about them), and indeed they were unlike any other french fry I’d ever eaten. Though they looked somewhat rumpled, suggesting sogginess, in fact they were firm as a strong handshake — or better yet, a solid high five, and the smoked applesauce served with them managed to dexterously lend sweet, woody, and acidic panache to each bite of the slightly fermented fried potatoes strings.
The hits began fast. Squash mayo served with the eggplant-trumpet mushroom “yakitori” was so good — so squash-y! — that I started running my fries through it. A bowl of mushroom broth chawanmushi made my toes curl. The custard dish (of Japanese origin) had a texture so silken that I wanted to drink it, but being forced to have it by the bewitching spoonful–each peppered by sweet, fragrant persimmon, crumbled pistachio and with a subtle but persistent chili oil–was an elongated pleasure. Squash with burrata is a no brainer on any fall menu, right? But Aaron makes it a revelation by serving it with grilled apple and kale dressed deftly in quince vinaigrette, and with a warmly acidic currant soffritto to balance the squash’s sugar and cheese’s creamy ooze.
The apex of the meal for me was Aaron’s Pear Curry with black lime-cod, persimmon and blistered squash. The curry “broth” retained pear’s trademark grainy texture between the teeth, and in it swam slices of the most delicately cooked yet vibrantly flavored cod, I’d ever tasted. To achieve this, Aaron cooked whole limes for 3-days and ground their remains into a powder which he dusted onto the cod before cooking it–just barely. Like finishing a great book, I was inclined to order this dish again immediately, so that I could experience its nuances & surprises all over again.
There was a lot going on in the grits with goat milk curds, fried brussels sprouts, quince and chanterelles; at once comforting and seductive…particularly thanks to the heavy dusting of Burgundian truffle atop. The aforementioned hangar steak “Side” had the rich, sultry funk of dry-aged meat, thanks to the salmon butter (he makes a noissette out of butter and salmon bones) and the uni-balsamic reduction.
Every element is considered and my favorite dishes were the ones where Aaron toed the line between his creative moxie and restraint in the form of trust and pride in his excellently sourced ingredients (breakfast radishes are kept in their soil in the basement and cleaned just before service, leaving their bodies firm and their delicious greens snappy).
It was impossible for me to experience AL’s Place as Knowlton had — on a trusted advisor’s recommendation but with no sense of the speckled story that lead Aaron here to this jolly, thriving, triumphant place. I knew a bit of the backstory already, but no odes to the ocean can prepare you for your first sight and scent of it; no descriptions of music can prime you for Lakmé’s “Flower Duet.” We don’t need to do homework in order to be bowled over. When we go into any edifice that showcases creativity, all we have to do is open our eyes, our ears or our mouths and let the artists do their jobs. Though, sure, doing a little research can certainly whet the appetite.
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Aaron, Austin & gang, thank you guys for taking such good care of me, for stashing my suitcase while I ate and sending me back to New York so giddy and bursting with fruit (and vegetable) flavor. ♥️
AL’s Place, 1499 Valencia St. SF, CA 94110 (at 26th Street), firstname.lastname@example.org, (415) 416-6136
Tags: Aaron London, AL's Place, Autumn, BAHot10, California, Farm-to-Table, San Francisco, The Lovage Goes West, winter