Spring is my favorite season, with its bright colors and sense of renewal (Happy Easter BTW). And that’s why I waited until now to check out the new AQ.
AQ is the concept restaurant by Chef/Owner Mark Liberman, who changes the menu and the restaurant esthetics every quarter with the season. The styling of the food is a mix of Mediterranean simplicity with touches of molecular gastronomy and seasonal ingredients from California.
Opened last fall, AQ sits alone in a gritty block on Mission Street not too far from the new federal courthouse. When I arrived to check out the new spring menu, the red-brick walls were accented by lime green-and-gold tapestries to signal spring. Blossoms on branches were the other touches to shift the focus onto the new season.
Sitting at the counter, I was able to watch the efficient kitchen staff, each sous chef responsible for a particular station.
“A.Q.” is the initials found in classic restaurant menus to mean “as quoted” for those dishes that are market priced based on the season. But even though everything on the AQ menu is seasonal, there are set prices for each category of courses, with starters ($10), first courses ($14), main entrées ($25), and desserts ($8).
The pricing actually works well for everything except, IMHO, the main courses. The plates are beautifully presented, but the sizing is very similar to what you’d find on a tasting menu. This means it helps to order four courses for the evening in order to feel satisfied, which means your tab can end up to be $57 just for the food (not including any drinks, tips, tax and a separate San Francisco health tax).
A side note about my evening: my service was perfunctory but lacking. When I arrived, my server greeted me and gave me water, without asking if I wanted any starting cocktail or drinks. I sat for probably five minutes before my waiter finally came back to check on me, and by then I already decided about my cocktail (a classic martini) and my menu choices.
Throughout the evening, my server came and went with my dishes, but was always a step behind. For example, I was the one to mention that I wanted a glass of wine with my entrée, or that I was ready for dessert (all things servers typically ask me about). Plus, my waiter didn’t seem that engaged (I call it the “no personality” service).
Despite this one particular waiter (everyone else who helped me were great), I was blown away by the food. My choices were a celebration of the spring season, from the asparagus salad to the stinging nettle tortelloni with citrus.
The asparagus salad was my favorite – a varied preparation that showcased the abundant spring vegetable in different textures, from a mousse to grilled stems to thinly sliced and barely cooked ribbons. Then the plate was amazingly accented with unusual ingredients, including spots of bright orange steelhead roe and (the most genius) use of white chocolate drops that were torched for caramelizing. The bits of salty and sweet made this dish transcendental.
My main course of duck aged on the bone is a duck breast that’s presented with a dance of beets prepared almost like a salsa and separately decorated with a ribbon of beet gel. The aging on the bone of the duck allows the flavor of the meat to be concentrated, giving the duck a more intense flavor.
For my dessert, I probably should have ordered the strawberry creation to fit more with the spring theme, but I went with one of AQ’s signature desserts of popcorn, caramelized sponge cake, banana and marcona almonds. The plate was like a fancy Cracker Jack poured out on a plate with touches of banana cream and squares of sponge cake. It was good, but not spectacular or filled with revelations like the rest of my dinner.
AQ is a mix for the senses, from the contrasting textures on the plate, the changing décor of the dining room, and the smack of humanity when you walk outside. But the kitchen provides the most excitement, and that, I predict, is what will be the constant in all four seasons.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
AQ, 1085 Mission St. (at Seventh), San Francisco. PH: 415.341.9000. Open for dinner, Tue.-–Sun., 5:30–11:30 p.m.; brunch, Sun., 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. (SF healthy tax added to bill). www.aq-sf.com
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