Now, this is not a typical restaurant that I would normally review for Mission Local. It’s not a mom-and-pop place, not family run, not ethnic, and it’s not a dive. Nowhere near a dive. Does this restaurant – which was recently included in Open Table’s list of 100 best restaurants for foodies in America – further the cause of keeping the Mission the same as it ever was? Let’s find out.
Al’s Place had been on my radar for months, because it’s across the street from one of our haunts, the Dovre Club. Chef Aaron London (“Al” being Aaron London’s initials), formerly of Ubuntu, the famed and now shuttered high-end Napa vegetarian emporium, had landed on one of those little-travelled corners of the Mission that appear to be under the dreaded failed-restaurant curse. It replaced a seemingly expendable burger joint, which replaced a god-awful Thai joint, which replaced a so-so tapas joint (as reported here). So, expectations were high. A skeptical bartender I know said it looked way too hoity-toity, with overblown prices for veggies with a bit of meat on the side. But….it looked so cute! Plus, I was intrigued by a place of its credentials so unabashedly out of place in this little section of the neighborhood, a block away from Clooney’s bar, across the street from Goodwill…. And it is indeed the restaurant’s mission to flaunt vegetables and keep the meat and fish as a sideshow.
So, when Bon Appetit’s teaser article showed up on my Facebook feed, touting to all the world that San Francisco was now the foodie capital of the country (like we needed someone to tell us that), and listed Al’s Place as their first example, I leapt into action. I was planning a dinner out with a vegetarian friend, so I emailed her about it. She went right online and immediately got us a reservation for 7 p.m. the following week. The story of Al’s being Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant of the Year in the country hit a few days later, with the ensuing running of reservations to eight weeks down the road. So we got in just in time. We were thrilled!
We ordered, to share:
-French fries, smoked apple sauce
-Royal trumpets, fava mayo, green peach and pluot relish
-Lightly cured trout, crispy potato, smashed cucumber, bagna cauda
-Stone fruit curry, black lime-cod, green bean, blueberry
-Grits, goat’s milk curds, green tomato, corn, padrons
-Campanelle, heirloom tomato, jimmy nardello (a pepper), goat’s gouda
The fries were great. The potatoes had been lightly fermented before frying, and you could taste just a hint of an appealing funky sourness. But the texture is what I really liked. They were crunchy in a way that sticks to your teeth, as though the sugars in the potatoes had caramelized (if you’ve ever had 4505 Meats’ chicharrones, it reminded me of those). The smoked apple sauce (apple butter, actually) was indeed smoky, which I loved, but because there was mustard in the mix it didn’t taste a lot like apple. It was tasty, though, and we kept it to dip our bread in.
The trumpet mushroom dish was a beauty – a light course, with earthy flavors, hints of sweetness from the fruit, and a whole forest of flora. The dish sang of summer and the bounty of freshly picked vegetables. The gorgeous bright green fava mayonnaise rounded the whole thing out. One of our favorites.
I love smoked fish of any kind, but the trout was my least favorite dish. It wasn’t bad, but it just seemed like a dish I could have had anywhere. I don’t think the sauce underneath was a bagna cauda (the menu online was slightly different than that night’s menu at the restaurant), and I’m not sure what it was – a little sweet, and therefore a little out of place. But mostly the dish was rather dull. The potatoes weren’t all that crispy. The cured trout was fine but not better than other cured trout I’ve had. The smashed cucumbers did add a fresh note. And, there was one tiny little element of surprise – perched artfully on the trout were these cute, miniature, cucumber-like things, which turned out to be Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers. They were very crunchy but unfortunately not super flavorful – I only got a slight cuke flavor from them.
The grits dish was fantastic. The grits themselves were the creamiest I’ve ever had, and the goat curds were just subtly, deliciously goaty. It was a rich dish, and the green tomato, charred corn and padron peppers cut through it all nicely. I have to say, I moaned a little while eating it. A really great dish.
I hadn’t even thought of ordering the stone fruit curry, until the hostess, before I could even finish my question, told me it was her favorite dish. “What’s your fav…” “Thestonefruitcurry!” is how that went. So I ordered it and was really happy I did. I know fruited curries aren’t a new invention, but this was my first. The lemongrass in the light, slightly spicy curry went so well with the ripe sweet/tart nectarines, peaches, and blueberries. The cod gave the whole thing a nice hit of umami, a silky texture, and was cooked perfectly. The pictures are before and after the curry was poured over the fruit and fish.
My friend’s campanelle (a pasta whose name means “little bell”, as they’re in the shape of bellflowers), was like a warm dish of mush – in a very good way. The pasta was not cooked al dente, it truly was a very soft pasta, and I’m not sure if that was the intent but it made for a real comfort dish. It was cheesy – again, just subtly goaty – and had Thai basil strewn over it. But the best component of the dish were the smoked tomatoes – to die for. They really elevated the dish to something more than a bowl of pasta in tomato sauce.
Most of the dishes that we had, in fact, had a strong comfort factor – the fries, the curry, the grits, the pasta… maybe we just didn’t order enough light, summery dishes. I’m not complaining about it, it just wasn’t what I expected. I somehow felt that the dishes in this veggie-centric restaurant weren’t really veggie-forward, except for maybe the trumpet dish. They were homey, and rich. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just wasn’t what I had imagined. And, the only dish I felt so-so about was the trout.
As for the service, while our server wasn’t particularly attentive, there were a lot of people bringing out dishes, water, bread (upon request, with a deliciously flakey-salted butter) and taking the time to explain dishes if you asked. The Chef himself served some dishes to a few tables.
The drinks were all named after the aliases in the movie “Reservoir Dogs” (with the addition of Ms. Brown), and all in the same cute little Nick and Nora glasses. The cocktails seemed to follow a bittersweet theme (I had two, and a taste of my friend’s), owing to the preponderance of dry vermouths and bitters involved in most of them. I do like that sort of thing in a cocktail.
My girlfriend ran into Chef London on her way to the restroom and they chatted. He told her that they still source their vegetables from a woman in Grass Valley that used to supply Ubuntu. She brings them into the City once a week, still in a bed of the dirt they grew in. That’s pretty cool.
Speaking of cool, I have never seen so many topknots in one small place, ever, and I live here in hipster central. And I’m not talking about the customers; 90% of the dudes serving/cooking, including Chef London, were sporting the now uber-trendy manbun. It didn’t take away from my experience; but, if you’re hipster averse then… well then you may have to move out of the Mission. Which brings me back to the question: Does Al’s Place enhance our neighborhood? Is it just another sign of how much things are changing?
The restaurant was definitely showing signs of its new-found fame; the hostess told me there had been a line out the door at 5:30 when they opened of people trying to do walk-ins, and they had to turn most of them away. They do hold back 2-3 tables a night for walkins, and you can also sit at the bar overlooking the open kitchen and watch all that manbun action. But it’s going to be a while before things calm down. At 9:30, when we left, there were still about a dozen people waiting for tables. The hostess did say to try calling if you can’t get anything on OpenTable.
I don’t know about “best new restaurant”; I haven’t tried the others. Was it the best meal I’ve ever had? I must say: No. Did I like it? Yes. I loved it, even. But I really don’t need to go back right away (even if I could, what with it being booked up for weeks in advance now.) Though I might want to go again as the seasons change (and the prices undoubtedly rise with the fame) to see what Aaron London is up to. Did we feel we got value for our money? Yes and no. I left completely full. I just wasn’t as wowed as I thought I would be.
But maybe you’re not supposed to be. Maybe the new hype is taking away the point of the food – mostly simply prepared veggies that become comforting dishes. Maybe it was actually supposed to be more of a neighborhood place than it is unfortunately going to turn out to be, thanks to Bon Appetit, and the hordes of people who will flock to the restaurant just because Bon Appetit told them to. I don’t begrudge them the fame – hooray for Aaron London! But just like with State Bird Provisions, people will come in droves from all over the country, all over the world. I’m just not sure if that’s what Al’s set out to be.
But in the meantime, I do think it makes our little chunk of the City just that much more special. And let’s hope the curse of that corner is over!