After three years off the scene and presumably out of practice, it might have been tempting to assume that chef Aaron London was going to need some time to reacclimate to having his own kitchen, and that his long-awaited solo foray into the SF dining scene, AL's Place, might not hit it out of the park right away. But the one-time James Beard nominee who more than ably took the helm at Napa's much acclaimed Ubuntu following the departure of Jeremy Fox has proven that he hasn't lost a sliver of imagination or ambition in the intervening years, and his new restaurant is shaping up to be one of the top newcomers in a crowded year of openings in the city.
I'll start with a small plate of kaffir lime-scented, lightly battered and fried cubes of black cod that came to my table the first time I ate there in March. They were subtle, comforting, and just as unique as I'd remembered his vegetarian food at Ubuntu, and they melted away in two bites leaving both me and my dining companion involuntarily making the kinds of insufferable faces that self-proclaimed foodies and Food Network hosts make voluntarily all the time. Foodgasm faces.
There was also a fun play on Thai green curry, and a barely sweet citrus "salad" for dessert that was one of the best desserts I've had from a non-pastry chef in years. And though the pricetag was high for a relatively small-portioned meal in a very casual environment, I knew that London had pulled off something great, which was to distinguish himself, out of the gate, and impress two not-easily-impressed eaters with a series of dishes that were layered with flavor and texture without seeming to try too hard.
The gimmick London debuted with was a menu driven by vegetable and fish dishes, with a few modest portions of meat and fish served a la carte as "sides." The idea works mostly because the smaller plates, soups, and inventive vegetable presentations are so satisfying.
Several weeks ago he was making a stellar duck liver mousse served with a compote of perfect, mildly tart, early-season cherries and as a testament to London's farm-to-table training and taste, he said he hadn't even debuted the mousse with any other accompaniment until he found cherries worthy of his standards.
London is now sourcing the majority of his produce from Rose Becker (née Robinson) of Blue Dane Garden, the same biodynamic gardener who supplied him at Ubuntu, and the quality shows in dishes like the simple snack course of raw breakfast radishes served with preserved Bergamot butter and salt; and every dish featuring delicate baby lettuces or greens.
Recently, in addition to a $60-per-person family style tasting option (a great value, given what you get), London introduced a more traditional tasting menu for $85 per person. Either price is worth it to take a guided tour of this unconventional menu, whose descriptions often belie dishes of great complexity and balance. Also keep in mind that the menu changes weekly, with aspects of it changing daily, so no two trips there are likely to be very similar.
You should go, though, just to see a local talent back in his element, on a small but decidedly personal stage, cooking the kind of food that makes San Francisco such a fantastic place to eat.
Previously: AL's Place, Chef Aaron London's New Mission Spot, Opens Friday