A recent dinner at the bar at AQ was the best meal I've had in this price range lately, and for one dish in particular the kitchen was punching so far above its weight that the dish would have seemed of a piece at Crenn, Manresa or Coi.
The menu and decor emphasize the seasonality of the chef's approach--the glass boxes set into the bar were filled with bathing suits, flip-flops and sand. Menu, likewise, was themed and titled "Summer." A funny thing about July in San Francisco is that while perusing a menu of squash and watermelon, the fog rolls down Mission Street as thick as tumbleweeds in a Spaghetti Western. As the bartender fixed drinks, we both looked out the window at the 50-degree evening. "Stupid San Francisco" she said. It was a funny aside, but also true that the menu had the effect of walking into a chain store in Union Square to buy tights and a cardigan only to find the racks stocked with bikinis and beach cover-ups.
A watermelon appetizer described as "watermelon, lovage, cactus, buttermilk and basils" was more straightforward than I expected--the melons were shaped and compressed, but the execution didn't amplify or reconsider the elements enough to feel interesting--it was, basically, a big piece of watermelon on a plate. The punchy pickled rind and slick matchsticks of cactus appealed more than the melon brick.
In between the appetizer and second app I ordered as an entree, an amuse bouche arrived. The clams and raisins in broth were the highlight of the meal--a pairing I didn't expect that made perfect sense and was flat-out, knock-down delicious. Put this on the menu! I want more.
The gnocchi plate with tomatoes and whey was excellent--pillowy and well formed, the tomatoes and whey gave it a summery feel while still being substantial enough to knock a hole in the bleakness of the day. Bread by Oakland's Firebrand and salted butter from Straus Family Creamery. Both excellent as usual.
Overall, the service was professional, knowledgeable and warm without being too formal. Super enjoyable dinner and one I hope to repeat soon.