Restaurants: AQ, San Francisco
Barbeque pork with shelling beans and corn bread speaks of hot, lazy summer days. With a glass of lemonade in hand and Vin Scully narrating baseball on the radio, here you have the glorious season where the days are long, the nights are warm, and the fields and orchards thrive. Summer means water balloon fights and kayaking on lakes. It’s the season for outdoor camps and family trips to the beach and to Europe. It’s the season for blockbuster, mega budget films.
Now that the seasons have turned another page from spring to summer officially, so too has the menu and the atmosphere at the intensely seasonal restaurant AQ. Many restaurants follow the usual local, seasonal, organic, on, and on script, pioneered in the 1970’s by the likes of Moosewood and Alice Waters. The nearly year old AQ takes the seasonal focus to an entirely different, very literal level. The entire restaurant changes every four months from the decor to the menu crafted by the gifted chef Mark Liberman to the attire worn by servers. AQ’s concept follows the dining as theater ideology best exemplified by Chicago’s Next, where the menu completely changes every three months and may involve a theme of Kyoto kaiseki followed by “Childhood.”
Here, it’s the seasons that act as the narrative for this theatrical piece. Unlike Next, there are no tickets to attend this play. AQ is a theme restaurant without feeling like there is any theme. Everything here feels natural. The decor speaks of the time and place. That time is summer. That place could perhaps be the Provençal countryside. The place certainly is not where AQ actually is located, just south of Market, along a still gritty stretch of Mission Street, not far from the future Twitter headquarters in one direction and the edgy Sixth Street corridor in the other. SoMa is a vast district of San Francisco, with some of the most glittering blocks in the city and some of the most struggling. AQ quite possibly is the most glittering restaurant presently in the city. Just a block away is still one of the city’s most challenging urban renewal projects. Whether Mayor Ed Lee can succeed in turning Market Street and Sixth Street into the successful gentrification projects that his predecessors did with other areas of South of Market (SoMa) remains to be seen. It certainly helps to have game changing restaurants like AQ with these projects.
Despite AQ being the work of a rookie restaurateur Matt Semmelhack, the experience at AQ is one of the smoothest and well-thought out the city has to offer. Too many restaurants strive to cut corners. That’s not the case here. Prices are where they should be. The menu is the right size. Servers know every detail of every dish, save for a few cocktails. Hostesses are actually glad to see you, such a strange concept these days. This place clicks much like the 2010 Giants in October. Everything is organized and compliments each other, with a few dashing stand outs along the way, with a dose of joie de vivre to keep matters light and fresh.
Since its summer, the servers now have pale blue, casual dress shirts, as if AQ were the suave bistro for a wealthy seaside enclave. The chic exposed brick interior receives a rural contrast from trees hanging over the bar that in winter are leafless, but now are happy and healthy, looking as if they were plucked straight from the Santa Cruz Mountains. In the main dining area, cherry wood tables have replaced tablecloths and street lamps and windows complete with closed shutters (must be siesta time) on the brick wall provide quite the juxtaposition where petit village Provence meets urban warehouse edginess.
AQ has three main areas for diners, adding up to roughly 75 coveted seats. The handsome bar resides near the door, where mixologists dressed for Prohibition complete with suspenders and bowler hats concoct some of the city’s premier cocktails. The open kitchen provides the backdrop for the chef’s counter seating and the main dining area is situated between the two.
“As Quoted” refers to freshness and seasonality on menus. Most often you’ll see oysters and lobsters with a price of “AQ” on menus. AQ doesn’t have any items listed as “AQ,” but that same pristine vision drives Liberman’s menu. Liberman and Semmelhack met, like so many successful couples and partners in life or business these days, online, on Craig’s List no less.
Most recently, Liberman worked on a butchery company and as a consultant, and prior to that with classic French haute cuisine chefs such as Joël Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, and Roland Passot. His style shows the care of these legendary chefs, with more modern flair, and less of a heavy hand on sauces. If Robuchon were a thirty year old chef in San Francisco, this is how his cooking would be.
That barbeque pork provides the perfect example of AQ’s vision and Liberman’s deft balance of bold flavors with light touches, and a pinch of molecular modernism that avoids the usual foam, sous-vide rabbit hole. A juicy pork tenderloin serves as the centerpiece, accompanied by barbequed pulled pork spread about the dish. Cornbread comes interpreted as a pudding that brings polenta to mind, but tastes like the out of this world skillet fried cornbread in lard I once enjoyed at Kurtz’s in Bardstown, Kentucky. Shelling beans must have been long simmered in a pork broth because they taste vividly of ham, similar to those Willy Wonka candies that look like one thing and taste of something completely opposite. The tenderloin is topped by a mustard ash that looks and tastes exactly like whole grain mustard, and the dish is completed by a flourish of licorice tinged sauce. This is summer through the eyes of a visionary chef with true skill at executing the idea.
The pork is one of the six larger plates, joining the ranks of a strip loin with bone marrow crunch, eggplant, and caramelized miso, or chicken paired with fermented brook cherries and amaranth with porcini mushrooms. Summer ingredients are everywhere, from the eggplant and cherries to the sweet corn and hominy with wild salmon in roasted lobster juices. The most intriguing large plate would actually be a vegetarian “sausage” made of chard and golden beets that makes every vegetarian “burger” or “hot dog” beforehand seem as riveting as a United Airlines salad.
Liberman has a very gentle hand with his dishes, such as the potato gnocchi with a texture as soft as San Francisco’s fog, surrounding a pool of nasturtium puree. Gnocchi seems more appropriate in the winter, often heavy and dumpling-like. These gnocchi have the levity of a Leslie Caron step. A few cheese curds are scattered about, the stratus clouds to the gnocchi’s fog. The star of this subtle, knockout dish are the early season cherry tomatoes concentrated with whey that are 200 percent juicier than the typical tomato. They could fall for being chemically altered. So could the gnocchi. They’re not. They’re just literally bursting with juice, weighing down the whey.
The scallops come perfectly caramelized on the outside, magic on the inside, that combination as challenging to achieve as the horse racing Triple Crown. Giants cucumber slices, fennel, and almonds join the scallops. A plum based chilled soup would hit the spot on a hot July day. It looks as if Cezanne painted it for a still life, with charred lemon and the most tender tripe slices you are likely to find anywhere. The soup could have used more of the Szechuan peppers and wild ginger to give it the missing jolt. It wouldn’t be summer without watermelon, served as a salad with basil, cactus, and buttermilk. Of course summer squash and zucchini show up, paired with a lamb heart “pastrami.” You’re not at Katz’s or Langer’s here.
I enjoyed a riff on the French mille-feuille with alternating layers of potato and eel, flavored by cane sugar, with two manila clams for a stark briny contrast. The eel bites with the clams flourish, as does the parsley puree, intensely flavored with green garlic. However, the dish had too few clams and the cold potato was bland, leaving the bites of eel and the few clams highly coveted.
Strangely, the one dish that left us scratching our heads was a roasted milk chocolate pavé for dessert. A quenelle of chocolate cream tastes nothing of chocolate and seems to get in the way of what truly is a blackberry focused dish from blackberries on the side and the pavé actually consists more of a blackberry jam. The stars of the plate are the sweet-crunchy corn flakes and rooibos, not too distant a cousin from Cracker Jack or Nojo, the San Francisco izakaya’s cult favorite thunder crackers. Raspberry parfait with soy milk, tapioca pearls, and aloe are another option, or that summer favorite, peaches with brioche and frozen yogurt. Somehow, the desserts seem less refined and riveting as the prior events.
Cocktails on the other hand are stellar. A riff on the negroni called the “Fool’s Wager” is not to be missed with gran classico and punt e mes in place of Campari, and the addition of Ardberg 10yr scotch with Beefeater gin, and a summer touch from peach bitters. It is not to be missed nor is the “Maeklong Market Cocktail,” a fascinating rush of peanut infused mekhong, coconut milk, lime juice, and strong kaffir lime leaf flavor. It’s like a sauce from Pok Pok in liquid form on crushed ice.
A terrific, well priced wine list rounds out the experience, with a forte in wines from lesser known French regions. In fact the entire menu is perfectly priced, borrowing a stream-lined concept from the restaurant Cotogna in the city. All soups and salads are $10, other appetizers are $14, entrees are $25 except the salmon and strip loin at $32, and desserts at $8.
The crowd at AQ is as fashionable as it gets in San Francisco, the ladies looking as if they are about to go to a formal summer cocktail party or the latest hip gallery opening in SoHo, while the men must subscribe to GQ. I’ve never seen a crowd in this city that pays this much attention to its wardrobe. AQ is truly a scene. The diners range greatly in age from older friends celebrating to start up moneyed twenty-somethings on fifth dates.
It’s a concept that is truly innovative and one surely to be replicated in the future, for all seasons. AQ is the restaurant of the moment in San Francisco, representing the best of dining today and the literal moment in time with summer under way.