Owner Matt Semmelhack and Executive Chef-Owner Mark Liberman have a playful way when it comes to naming their San Francisco restaurants.
Their first? AQ, which stands for “As Quoted,” the phrase used in place of a specific price on a menu for seasonal, specialty dishes.
Their newest? TBD, which of course stands for “To Be Determined.”
It’s a nod to the fact that fire’s tamability decides the dishes. That’s because the main mode of cooking here is by live fire via a massive, hand-cranked, multi-adjustable grill.
You get a sense of the powerfulness of this, particularly if you sit at a table opposite the flames. Even on a very chilly night, as when I dined there, I was plenty roasty-toasty as I sat with my back to the blazing grill.
Imagine a hipster lumberjack as the ideal customer, and you get an idea of the vibe here. There are animal heads on the wall, dramatically stacked cords of wood, and specially designed wood tables with drawers that pull out to reveal your menu and silverware.
The bathroom is a little quirky, as the sink is located just outside of it, behind the servers’ station.
Although the grill is the focal point, not everything is kissed by flames on the concise menu, the prices of which are coded by symbols to indicate $6, $12, $18 and $24. The plates are designed for sharing. Although we paid our tab, the chef sent out a few things on the house, including thin slices of pink Broadbent Kentucky ham ($12), arranged on a river rock. The ham was salty, sweet, smoky and melting on the palate, especially its shaved edge of lovely white fat. With it were sharp tasting pickled turnips and fennel.
Hummus made from broccoli with chestnuts ($6) was unusual, but I much enjoyed the addition of sardines, which gave a salty, briny pop to the dip.
Smoked scallops ($12) with winter citrus and fennel juice was bright and refreshing, especially because of the snowy fennel granita over the top.
The taste of char is definitely evident in the leeks ($12), which are rolled in buttermilk before landing in the coals, so they emerge silky and delicate. A verde dressing with oysters dressed it up.
I can never resist anything with sea urchin. Here it’s served atop smoked dry-farmed potatoes, slivers of jalapeno and microgreens ($18). Potatoes take to anything creamy, and uni is no exception.
In a riff on blini, smoked rainbow trout is draped on top of buckwheat waffle triangles ($12) that could have been a little crisper.
Heirloom carrots arrive whole in a massive pottery bowl with lentils, and a swoosh of white sesame paste smeared on its side. It’s a dramatic presentation even in its simplicity. It also demonstrates just how a hot grill can bring out the wonderful natural sugars in root vegetables to make them something special.
If there’s one dish definitely not to miss, it’s the beef ribeye for two ($24 per person). That’s because the beef is from BN Ranch, owned by Bill Niman and his wife Nicolette, who produce grass-fed beef from cows that are slaughtered when they are more than 26 months old (rather than the typical 14 months for mass-produced beef). That extra time adds to the flavor of the meat, which is incredible — minerally and intensely beefy. At TBD, the beef gets a glorious crust on the outside and is brought to the table with a rib bone big enough to turn heads.
For dessert, the soft serve ($6) is rich and creamy, and loaded with the flavor of roasted banana. The hearth-cultured yogurt ($6) comes in a cute little mason jar, topped with Meyer lemon curd and bits of basil. It’s tangy and smooth, and a light way to end the night.
S’mores ($12) is unexpected in its modern, deconstructed manner. A slab of creamy chicory chocolate lays at the center of a large bowl, its edges covered in graham crumble and puffs of torched marshmallows. It has all the flavors of a traditional s’more but is less cloying.
These days, hearth cooking is all the rage, particularly among male chefs. What is it about men and fire? Is it the harkening back to cave man-days? As for whether it’s a trend that’s here to stay? Well, that’s still to be determined.
More: A Visit to AQ