I first ate the food of chef Aaron London at the late lamented Ubuntu in Napa Valley. Mr London had a troubled childhood and first developed an interest in cooking as a teenager – his probation officers started to place food orders with him when checking up on him. Mr London did a cookery course in 2002 in New York and managed to get a six month placement at Daniel and later a stint upstate at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. He returned to his native California in 2008 at Ubuntu. This closed in 2011, but by then he had worked his way up to executive chef there. AL’s Place (the name coming from his initials) opened in February 2015 on a street corner in the Mission district, around a twenty-minute taxi ride south of Union Square. It has a sparsely decorated room with white walls, high ceiling and light blue tiled floor. The bare tables are tightly packed and the hard surfaces mean that noise levels are quite high. The open kitchen is at the back on the left as you enter the room, with a few counter seats next to it. It can seat around 45 diners and was awarded a Michelin star in the 2016 guide.
There was a full menu choice and also a "family style" offering rather like a tasting menu except that you can pick and choose to a degree from the carte choices. This menu gave me a selection of four nibbles, three cold starters, two hot dishes and a dessert for $60. There was a short wine list printed in the back of the menu, starting at $46. This featured labels such as von Hovel Obermmeler Hutte Riesling Spatlese 2014 at $64 compared to a retail price of $14, Wenzlau Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay 2013 at $98 for a bottle that can be found for around $60 in a shop, and Marisa Cuomu Fuore Bianco Fiorduva 2013 from the Amalfi Coast at $115 for a wine that will set you back around $80 in a local liquor store.
The best of the nibbles that appeared were candied vadouvan almonds with a miniature salad. Vadouvan is just a French take on a masala spice mix, and this worked very well with the almonds, the gentle spices adding an interesting extra dimension to the flavour of the high quality almonds (16/20). Mushroom and fava chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard) broth with cherry and pistachio sounds more interesting than it was, the egg custard lacking the umami depth that you find in the dish in Japan (or indeed in the superb version of this at Hedone) and being too watery in texture (13/20). Blue Dane radish with preserved bergamot butter was a nice quality vegetable, but ultimately it is hard to get thrilled about a raw radish, especially as I had just come back from Japan, where I had just eaten ones of spectacular quality.
A speciality of the house much beloved of some local foodies was the brine pickled French fries with smoked apple sauce. The chef takes red-skinned potatoes and pickles them in brine with cabbage leaves for four days before conventionally double frying them. The effect is to change the texture of the fries, so that when you bite them they have a solid, chewy texture rather than the usual light, crisp texture of a conventional chip; the pickling process also means that they appear rather pale in colour rather than golden brown. While this is doubtless all very original, I do not think the end result actually compares well to a regular chip, and the ones that arrived tonight could have been hotter, though they were nicely salted. I did quite like the apple sauce, which was a useful flavour counterpoint to the sourness of the pickling, but in all honesty I would rather have just eaten some good chips (12/20).
Green asparagus came with miso dressing and green garlic mayonnaise with "peach thinning relish" and little salad leaves. Peach thinning is a gardening process to reduce the number of buds on a peach tree in order to ensure better quality fruit, so I am hazy as to its meaning on the menu here. However the asparagus was young and tender, cooked a la plancha, and the hint of sweetness from the miso and the flavour of the garlic worked really well with the greenery (15/20).
Also very good was cured trout with pickled turnips, crispy potatoes and bagna cauda (a warm dip from Piedmont made with olive oil, anchovies, garlic and butter). The trout was very good, not too sour from the pickling, and the potatoes were excellent, the turnips surprisingly good (15/20). These were better than cold cauliflower with mashed peas, burrata (cheese made from mozzarella and cream), rhubarb and pistachio mousse with a garnish of pomegranate seeds. This all sounded good but although the cheese was fine, the cauliflower itself rather lacked flavour, with the garnishes not enough to really lift the dish (13/20).
The best two dishes of the meal were the next two. Pea curry was poured over black cod with lime and pickled strawberry. This sounds odd and the flavour of the black cod (sablefish) was somewhat lost in amongst the spices, but the Thai style pea curry itself was superb, the quality of the peas excellent and the spices subtle and very carefully balanced (15/20). Also lovely was campanelle (pasta shaped like a little bell) with charred asparagus pesto, smoked fumet stock and goat cheese. The pasta had excellent texture but the star was the pesto, which had beautifully clean flavour (16/20).
I actually wish I had stopped there rather than trying what passed for dessert, a slightly overcooked brownie with caramel and peanut butter ice cream, which really felt like an afterthought. This is a restaurant that could really benefit from a proper French pastry chef (12/20 at best). Coffee was "French press" (cafetière) style rather than espresso, a local brand called Four Barrel that was actually very good, mild and rich in flavour.
Service was friendly enough but the dishes arrived at an awkward pace. The nibbles arrived in a hurried sequence, there was then a gap followed by two dishes appearing in quick succession, then another long gap. The place was packed out even at an early Sunday evening sitting so perhaps the kitchen was a bit stressed. The atmosphere was buzzy, with a generally young clientele. The bill came to $89 before tip, so in this case $110 (£74) with beer to drink. This is probably about what you would pay if you ordered from the carte and shared a moderate bottle of wine.
Other than dessert I enjoyed my meal at AL's place. The chef has a rather odd presentation tic of huddling the food in a corner of a large plate, but his cooking skills are considerable. Several of the dishes showed a real grasp of flavour balance, particularly the pasta dish and the pea curry, though some dishes did not work for me. Overall I preferred Ubuntu, which for me was more consistent, but there is no doubt that there is real talent in the kitchen.