Dining At Afici
Few good things resulted from the pandemic. But one of them is surely Afici.
This South of Market fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco grew out of the pasta-oriented pop-up and takeout that Executive Chef Eric Upper of Alexander’s Steakhouse did during shutdown. A New York City native who worked at Auerole in New York, and Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, Upper had the opportunity to lean into his Italian heritage, having studied Tuscan cuisine at Lorenzo de’ Medici School in Florence.
The pop-up proved so popular that it led the Alexander’s Steakhouse Restaurant Group to open Afici last summer.
The result is a stylish restaurant featuring inspired Italian specialties not found easily elsewhere, including house-made charcuterie made exclusively with prized A5 Wagyu.
I had a chance to experience Afici last week, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant.
With the wacky weather of late that’s brought snow to the Bay Area, it was an especially nice touch to be greeted at the host stand with cups of warm ginger-infused tea.
The elegant dining room sports cocoon banquettes that wrap around tables like first-class plane seats. (Not that I’ve ever experienced that, myself. But hey, I have seen pictures.) It makes for a very intimate dining experience. The first-class treatment continues with warm, fresh-scented towels arriving when you sit down, too.
The dining room offers only a four-course prix-fixe menu ($125) with various supplements available to add on. For each of the courses, there are 4 to 5 choices to choose from, too.
Specialty cocktails will set you back $20 each, but are highly worth trying for their uniqueness. Case in point, the Clarity, which is a total looker, arriving with a spoon of bright orange trout roe balanced on the rim of the glass that’s filled with a blend of Botanist Islay Gin, Dolin Blanc, and Dimmi Aperitif.
The server instructed that you can nibble some of the roe off the spoon, then stir the rest into the cocktail. As you do stir, a puddle of green at the center of the glass, disperses, sending droplets of shiso oil throughout. The briny roe adds a touch of salinity to the bracing, herbaceous drink that has a subtle note of orange blossom.
Afici makes its own white sturgeon caviar in collaboration with the California Caviar Company. On his third batch now, Upper says he’s learned that he favors eggs that aren’t too big or too earthy tasting.
You can taste the eggs of his labor either by the half ounce ($99) or full ounce ($183), each of which is served in an abalone shell with accompaniments of smoked egg yolk, chives, and creme fraiche.
Instead of the usual blini, Upper serves the caviar with tiny scallion pancakes. And let me tell you, once you enjoy caviar this way, you will wish every other place did this, too. The brilliance of the scallion pancake is that it is crisp throughout, unlike so many blini that are soft, even limp. The scallions, of course, also marry so well with the rich umami taste of the caviar. There is also the added butteriness of the scallion pancakes, almost like potato chips, another perfect vehicle for caviar.
The Wagyu charcuterie ($35 per person) arrives with a flourish on a clear glass pedestal platter. Six different one- or two-bite morsels are arrayed on it: coarse pate with piquant fennel mustard; coppa that fairly melts on a gnocco fritto, a crisp, hollow, richly oily tasting tiny bread made with Wagyu fat; a teeny brioche slathered with rillete and quince mostardo; spicy ‘nduja atop sourdough with a strip of roasted pepper; prosciutto wrapped around grissini; and paper-thin slices of salami coto that truly melt on the tongue.
Imagine your customary pork charcuterie — but far richer and fattier tasting. Upper said that the high fat content of A5 Wagyu makes for a far more challenging curing process, but one that is worth the effort because it allows him to use every bit of the animal.
After all that, the prix fixe was still to begin, starting with an amuse of a precious brandade fritter with a crisp exterior and creamy interior, garnished with a sliver of Spanish boquerone.
For first courses, I had the striped bass crudo dotted with circles of charred hearts of palm, all in a vibrant pool of aquachile that was fragrantly floral and zingy with calamansi. My husband chose the Santa Barbara abalone that had been cooked sous-vide for 20 hours before being grilled over blazing Japanese binchotan. While abalone can sometimes be chewy, this one was dense yet tender, lending it a very meaty quality. Lacy rye crisps, olives, and artichokes added a Mediterranean flourish.
The second course is pasta, and honestly, I could have easily eaten all five choices. In the end, I had to go with the spaghetti featuring Santa Barbara uni. You can add caviar to it for an additional $20, which I did. I’ve had a few uni pastas in my time, with many of them in overly buttery sauces that masked the uni and even a few in which the taste was slightly bitter, owing to uni that might not have been the very freshest.
This one tasted intensely of uni with a sauce that was velvety, clinging to every noodle, with a clean, sweet taste. Upper explained that he essentially turns uni into its own creamy sauce, which is why the uni flavor remains predominant.
My husband went with the spaghetti alla chitarra gently tossed with oysters, which you rarely see in a pasta dish. Meyer lemon bread crumbs were showered on top to add a toasty crunch, and a fish fumet used in the sauce to heighten the taste of the sea. Again, I’ve had chitarra before, the egg noodles that are cut with so-called guitar strings to create more texture for sauce to cling. But this was the first time I’ve had the pasta where I could actually discern the marvelous rough edges as I chewed.
The pastas were accompanied by fougasse, delicious Italian olive oil bread rolls, their burnished thin crusts brushed with charred leek oil.
Because I can’t get enough of Dungeness crab at this time of year, I chose that for my third course. It’s a dainty dish — maybe not ideal for he-man appetites — but fine if you’ve elected to enjoy the charcuterie at the start. The dish consists of three different preparations: crab gratinee with alliums on sourdough, a Yukon Gold sandwich with crab salad; and a crab cake croquette. They were arranged on a shallow pool of crab consomme that tasted deeply of the crustacean, having been made with the shells, white wine, and a touch of tomato.
My husband zeroed in on the “beef with its tongue” (that had a $15 supplement). Australian Wagyu tongue was a tender morsel crowned with a daikon salad accented by Half Moon Bay wasabi for a double mustardy kick. The rosy Wagyu rib eye slices were as buttery as it gets, and garnished with squash medallions cooked on the plancha.
To go with the beef, there was a Balgera Nebbiolo Alpi Retiche, juicy and bright with berries, rose petals, leather, and thyme. And for the crab, there was Specogna Pinot Grigio Colli Orientali del Friuli, unexpectedly coppery in the glass because of its longer than usual skin contact maceration, that boasted notes of apples, pear, and pineapple.
A perfect petit quenelle of grapefruit sorbet adorned with a sliver of candied peel reset the palate with its racy tartness with bitter edge.
For dessert, there’s the dramatic chocolate budino plated in the center of what looks like Saturn’s rings. The budino is incredibly thick and rich, caressing a pool of salty-sweet miso caramel dotted with a little gold leaf. Cocoa nib tuilles are pressed into its sides like a fortress.
Not unexpectedly, the carrot cake here does not resemble the cream cheese-frosted layer cake of childhood. This is deconstructed with cork-shaped pieces of buttery, moist carrot cake. The cream cheese comes in the form of a mousse, and the carrot taste gets decidedly punched up with a scoop of vivid-orange-hued carrot sorbet. It eats much less sweet than traditional carrot cake and with a taste far more impactful of the root veg.
Before you depart, there are mignardises of blood orange pate de fruits; doll-sized crackly cream puffs filled with pistachio cream; and salted caramels. But of course, not just any caramels, but ones infused with Wagyu fat. These glisten, and are practically spoonable soft. They yield completely when they hit the heat of your mouth, coating it all in an indescribable lushness.
Afici also offers an a la carte menu at the bar-lounge. So, if you want to wade in, rather wholeheartedly dive deeply in with a tasting menu, you can pick and choose from some of these same heavenly dishes to enjoy.