By the time you read this, there’s a good chance that not only have the dishes changed on the menu at AQ in San Francisco, but the decor, as well.
That’s because this new restaurant, opened less than two months ago, takes seasonality as literally as it gets — down to switching out the bar top, light fixtures, artwork and waitstaff uniforms according to whether it’s autumn, winter, spring or summer.
If you’re familiar with Park Avenue (Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn) in New York City, you’ve seen this concept before. It can be gimmicky, but only if the food falls short and plays second fiddle to the switcheroo interior. In the case of AQ, it does not. Indeed, the food created by Executive Chef-Proprietor Mark Liberman, former chef de cuisine at La Folie in San Francisco, is the star of the show. It’s executed so well, and with so many thoughtful little touches, that you long to come back again and again just to experience more, no matter how the dining room morphs.
When I was invited in two weeks ago as a guest of the restaurant, it was still officially “autumn” at AQ — down to the bronze plaque embedded in the floor right after you walk through the front door. The bar top was a gleaming, gorgeous copper, which will give way to white marble in winter. The industrial-chic space with exposed brick walls and massive timber beams is decorated with soaring trees, whose leaves will be stripped for the winter. So will the hip ceiling fixtures fashioned out of vintage heaters and chicken wire. The servers were dressed in warm, plaid shirts, but will be wearing something all together different in the next season.
Moreover, would you believe the plan is to transform the restaurant from one season to another practically overnight?
It may sound a little crazy, but Liberman thinks it’s worth the work to create a space that’s as exciting as the food.
It seems to be working, too, as the place was hopping on a Wednesday night, which is fairly impressive for such a newbie restaurant that’s located on a rather sketchy downtown street. Housed in a 104-year-old building that was once home to the Department of Public Health, of all things, it’s not a restaurant you’d just wander by while strolling downtown. No, you’d have to know it was there to be there.
AQ is short for “As Quoted,” a term that often appears on classic menus to denote especially fresh, seasonal dishes. It serves dinner nightly, and just added Sunday brunch service. Look for lunches to start soon.
At AQ, the wine and cocktail programs also change with the seasons. Or just tell the bartenders what you like and they’ll be only too happy to come up with something on the spot such as the non-alcoholic Meyer lemon-rosemary shrub I enjoyed before segue into something a little stronger made with Dubonnet Rouge, ginger beer and orange bitters infused with chamomile — all served up tall in a vintage glass.
The menu is divided into $10 small plates, $14 slightly larger plates, $25 entrees and $8 desserts.
My friend Julie and I started with Monterey squid ($10) artfully arranged in a long, slender bowl with charred avocado, parsnip puree, black sesame paste and tiny pieces of grapefruit. The avocado and toasty sesame paste played up the smoky flavors of the tender squid. This dish is emblematic of the effort put into plating here. It’s beautiful to behold, as were all the other dishes we tried.
That was followed by cured local sturgeon ($14) that came both raw and briefly seared with fabulous housemade potato chips, yogurt and crisp radish.
“Toasted barley and Dungeness Crab” ($14) brought an unexpected treat. I thought it might be a barley salad, but it turned out to be barley cooked in the style of risotto with Douglas fir oil and dehydrated mushrooms made into paper gracing the top . It was creamy, yet nutty and more toothsome than regular risotto. I loved it so much that I can’t wait to try cooking barley like this at home.
Next, an entree of monkfish roasted with hops ($25) and served with the tiniest buttered turnips, and a juicy fennel sausage. I can’t say I detected the hops in the dish necessarily, but the fish was so succulent beyond belief.
If “Duck Aged on the Bone” ($25) is still on the menu, don’t pass it up. It’s one of the best duck dishes I’ve ever had. The duck is aged in the walk-in for eight to 10 days before roasted. The result is duck that has the texture of a great steak yet is still juicy and pink in the center with crisp skin that has had all its fat rendered underneath. Chefs like to cook duck on the rare side, but there’s a fine line between tender and blue bordering on slimy. With this method, you avoid that pitfall. The firm meat has a deep flavor, and it’s complemented by an array of beets done in at least half a dozen different ways — from roasted to tartare to what looks like a piece of red licorice but is really fennel pickled in beet juice. There’s also a slick of beet jelly that looks like a wave undulating on top of the duck. The sweetness of the beets plays well with the gamy quality of the duck. And the numerous beet variations create a veritable landscape of discovery as every bite brings a new surprise.
For dessert, we shared a young ginger cake ($8) that was moist with Amaro Montenegro, the herbal Italian liqueur, and garnished with salted toffee and tiny cubes of sweet Asian pear.
We also couldn’t resist the dark chocolate chibouste ($8), a mousse-like-confection whipped with meringue for more body and crowned with a gooey torched marshmallow top and “twigs” made of liquid chocolate that had been piped into cold water.
I can’t wait to check out the menu and decor again. Because no matter what the season, the time is right for AQ.
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