Went to Al’s last night. I’d been wanting to try it for months, and when I read the first BA story about San Francisco being the best food city in the U.S. (yay us!), where it mentioned Al’s last week, it reminded me, and as I was going out with a friend who is a vegetarian, I told 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 BA’s best new restaurant of the year in the country hit a few days later, with the ensuing pushing reservations to 8 weeks down the road. So we got in just in time. We were thrilled!
I don’t know about best new restaurant, I haven’t tried the others. I’d never even been to Ubuntu. Was it the best meal I’ve ever had? No. Did I like it? Yes. Loved it, even. But I really don’t need to go back right away (even if I could.) 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.
french fries, smoked apple sauce
lightly cured trout, crispy potato, smashed cucumber, bagna cauda
royal trumpets, fava mayo, green peach and pluot relish
stone fruit curry, black lime-cod, green bean, blueberry
grits, goat’s milk curds, green tomato, corn, padrons 16
campanelle, heirloom tomato, jimmy nardello, goat’s gouda
We shared everything but the two fish dishes (I got the better end of that deal), and I had a few tastes of my friend’s pasta.
The fries were great. They’re lightly fermented, and you can 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 (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 dish was beautiful – a light dish with earthy flavors, hints of sweetness from the fruit, and a whole forest of flora. The gorgeous bright green fava mayonnaise rounded the whole thing out. One of our favorites.
The trout was my least favorite dish. It 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 last night’s menu at the restaurant), and I’m not sure what it was – a little sweetish, maybe? But mostly the dish was just a bit dull. The potatoes weren’t all that crispy. The cured trout was fine but not better than other I’ve had. The smashed cucumbers did add a fresh note. But there was one tiny little element of surprise – these cute, miniature, cucumber-like things, which turned out to be Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers. They were very crunchy but not super flavorful – I only got a slight cuke flavor from them.
The grits were 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 pardons cut through it all nicely. Really great dish. We moaned.
I hadn’t even thought of ordering the stone fruit curry, until the hostess, before I could even finish my query, told me it was her favorite. “What’s your f-” “Thestonefruitcurry,” is how that went. So I got it and was really happy I did. I know fruited curries aren’t a new invention, but 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 just a nice umami-ness and added a silky texture, and was cooked perfectly. The pictures are a before and after the curry was poured over the fruits.
The campanelle was like a warm dish of mush – in a good way. The pasta was not al dente, it truly was 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 thing for me about the dish were the smoked tomatoes – to die for. I want to do this at home.
Most of the dishes, in fact, had that 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, but it 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 mushroom dish. They were homier than that. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just wasn’t what I had imagined. And again, the only dish I really was just so-so about was the trout.
The drinks were all named after the aliases in Reservoir Dogs (with the addition of Ms. Brown), and all in the same type of cute little glass (I’m sure there’s a proper name for them.) The cocktails seemed to be following 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 didn’t really look at the wine list except to order a glass of Cremant to finish off the meal.
My friend ran into young Chef London on her way to the restroom and they chatted, and 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 a manbun. This is just an aside, didn’t take away from the experience. Our server wasn’t particularly attentive, but there were a lot of people bringing you 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 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 with people trying to do walk-ins, and they had to turn most of them away. They do have walk-ins; they hold back 2-3 tables a night, 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 try calling if you can’t get anything on OpenTable. As yet there is no “you must wait for 8 weeks to the nanosecond to get our next available reservation, so call at 3:00 a.m.”
We spent $144 for the two of us (4 drinks total) and all the above dishes. No dessert . Was it worth the 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 brand new hype is already taking away the point of the food – mostly simply prepared veggies that turn into comforting dishes. Maybe it was supposed to be more of a neighborhood place than it is unfortunately going to turn out to be, thanks to BA. 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.
(sorry, pics aren't great - got progressively darker in the restaurant.)
eta: (ack! why do the secondary pics look so terrible until you click on and open them???)