I recently went on a quick Memorial Day weekend trip to San Francisco and Monterey. I had only one day stay in San Francisco, so I knew I had to be very selective in choosing the place where I will have my first and last dinner in the city during this trip. While San Francisco may not have as many great restaurants as New York City, it still has enough number to think about, and some places that I had visited during last year’s trip were quite memorable, with the so-called California cuisine focusing on the freshness of ingredients and clean flavor. That theme continues to be vibrant in San Francisco restaurant, perhaps none more so than Al’s Place located on a somewhat obscure corner on the outer edge of hipster haven Mission neighborhood. I’ve been hearing a lot of accolades coming from the kitchen led by the young chef Aaron London (culminating in #1 of Bon Appetit magazine’s best restaurants of last year), and struggled mightily to secure a reservation online so just decided to try my luck on walk-in basis. I’ve had luck for the most part getting seated at the hottest restaurants in the world, and was very thrilled to learn that the restaurant sets aside its outdoor tables for all walk-ins!
Al’s Place showcases a lot of vegetable-centric dishes but they are not just typical dishes you would see at some health-conscious salad bars. My dining companion and I decided to try the family style sharing menu (at $60 per person for a number of dishes on the menu). You can tell that a lot of thoughts have gone into these dishes, starting with garden fritters that were a really nice start to the meal, as well as fava’d mushroom broth chawanmushi with cherry and pistachio in it that displayed such rich flavor that we finished the relatively small bowl in a hurry.
The combination of different ingredients was just striking, and the plating of each dish so colorful that you would think some fairy concocted these plates straight from the garden, whether it’s the baby lettuces salad with herbed avocado and pistachio crumble, or lightly cured trout accompanied by crispy potato, smashed turnip and bagna cauda. I’ve become more and more a fan of cauliflower over the recent years, and the one at Al’s Place was definitely a winner, a beautiful combination with mashed peas, burrata, pistachio mousse and rhubarb that had very nice balance of flavor and texture. Even a simple looking grits dish was quite pleasing to my palate, this one combined with goat’s milk curds, favas, yuzu blaster and secret peas for a delightfully complex flavor.
Campanelle pasta is not just ordinary pasta either. Combined with charred asparagus pesto, it had amazingly clean flavor that would make you satisfied without feeling like you need a rich bolognese pasta. With all this vegetable festival, would I be disappointed with meat dishes that are here? Not so fast, I absolutely loved the 35-day aged ribeye that really had close to perfect texture when it comes to tenderness of the meat, and moderated flavor that gave even more power to such texture. With all the pleasant surprises here and there, dessert was somewhat pedestrian, a nice but not particularly memorable dish of warm chocolate brownie with peanut butter ice cream with beans inside the brownie. In any event, there is no denying that Al’s Place does a great job in the overall creativity and execution department and has a great fit with the California vibe.
The restaurant has a full bar with some creative cocktail and California-centric wine selections. Getting a reservation could be a Herculean task (I tried to get a reservation from more than a month in advance, but the tables were nearly booked solid for the next two months), so your best bet is to show up early and try walk-ins at outdoor tables. The dining space that I peeked inside had a casual yet airy vibe to it, with a lot of young San Franciscans enjoying their time at the beginning of long weekend. Al’s Place definitely deserves its place as a restaurant that best epitomizes the ethos of California cuisine, with vibrant creativity and beautiful execution that I surely hope the kitchen can keep up with.
- Creativity: 9.0/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 9.0/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
Address: 1499 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Telephone: (415) 416-6136