A thick stripe of black sesame purée bisected the first plate to greet our table at AQ, pearly curlicues of squid flaring along its length ($10). Wedges of bright green avocado alternated with the squid, their edges black and pebbly where they'd been charred, and here and there a dainty wedge of pink grapefruit peeked out from beneath a cluster of tentacles. Even brought together, the components tasted as distinct, and fascinating, as they looked: the smoky, lush avocado dissolving into the sesame's nuttiness, the pop-pop-pop of citrus cells illuminating the sweet squid underneath.
Mind you, that was during the fall.
First-time restaurateur Matt Semmelhack is the principal owner of the 2-month-old SOMA restaurant, but its chef and co-owner, Mark Liberman, has been chef de cuisine at La Folie and worked under Michelin star-magnet chefs Daniel Boulud and Joël Robuchon. His résumé piqued the curiosity of S.F.'s foodista circles, which intensified when the food blogs posted his inaugural menu, with dishes like the squid and avocado, and entrée prices fixed at $24 (in December, AQ bumped them up to $25).
AQ's conceit is that the restaurant reinvents itself every solstice and equinox. The space presents a gorgeous frame for its seasonal metamorphoses, constructed out of exposed bricks that were once hauled to San Francisco in the ballast of ships, with articulated iron lights jutting from the walls and an open kitchen as crowded with cooks as it is light. When AQ opened in the fall, branches of dry leaves sprouted out of planters and grates, and the lights hanging from the ceiling were rusted and frail. As of Dec. 21, not only did the servers change from plaid shirts to black and white, new lights resembling snowflakes were installed, and white fleece blankets now covered the backs of the chairs. Not a San Francisco winter scene, perhaps, but wintry nonetheless.
Over at the bar near the entryway, the bartenders, who personalize classic cocktails with house-concocted quirks, seem to be spending much of the evening with a hissing blowtorch in hand, brûléeing fruit. Wine director Kristen Capella and consulting sommelier Jesse Becker are bully on Loire whites and Italian reds, and their impressively deep list is the equivalent of a bookshelf stocked with Colson Whitehead, Haruki Murakami, and Michel Houellebecq: both intellectual and hipster-approved.
In details like the inordinately smooth texture of the spinach-salsify purée that accompanied a cobia fillet ($24), for instance, you can see Liberman's haute cuisine training, but his fondness for dehydrators and gelling agents puts him in the same school as restaurants like Commonwealth and Sons + Daughters.
The cobia fillet? An autumn dish, now gone. Goodbye, too, to the veal breast braised sous-vide until the laws of entropy threatened to dissolve its shape ($24), then brightened up with orange and oregano; and the roasted monkfish ($24) with skinny fennel sausages, turnips practically infused with butter, and dots of a Sriracha-like purée, which would have been a near-perfect combination of flavors had the monkfish not been roasted to the texture of a wet log.
So, yeah, Liberman's still working out the kinks, though most of them are of the "Why isn't this dish as good as the other ones?" variety. Each of the desserts (all $8) had lovely flavors and textural weirdnesses, for instance, whether it was the pasty shortcake-like spread accompanying a poached pear or the too-dense dark chocolate "chibouste," a.k.a. flourless chocolate cake, paired with a brûléed marshmallow and graham cracker crumbs. And there are enough fine details etched into the dishes that one or two of them always gets lost.
But the whole remains impressive. AQ is articulating that new cuisine coalescing in San Francisco that is both modernist and seasonal, without the theatrics of more avant-garde restaurants like Alinea or the Fat Duck. If Liberman debones a chicken thigh and uses a little meat glue to compress it into a mandarin-sized ball that gets deep-fried, you're not necessarily any the wiser, though you'll notice that it's crisp and spectacularly juicy, and you'll be more likely to note the subtle sweetness of the kuri squash purée beneath the chicken breast than the fact that the breast obtained its plush texture courtesy of an immersioncirculator ($25).
It's almost impossible to describe Liberman's cooking in the space of a short article — talking about the creamy texture of a single roasted parsnip that he leans seared scallops against and swirls a luxurious parsnip purée ($15) around gives only a glimpse of the dish. Citing the papery skin on a branzino fillet that the chef matches up with a fried chard leaf and a foot-long potato croquette whose interior was pure cream ($25) means leaving out a half-dozen flourishes.
So let me just talk about the most astonishing dish on the winter menu, duck aged on the bone ($25). At its center: a duck breast with the earthiness of a dry-aged steak, boned and rolled, encased in skin with the brittle crunch of a tortilla chip. A transparent sheet of beet juice gelled with agar agar rests on top of the duck, leaving every bite touched by the beet's rooty sugars, and roasted beets, pink and violent magenta, appear on the plate in several other guises. There is the obligatory lost detail — a chickpea cake that dissolves onto the plate — but also roasted beet powder, pungent black olives, and arcs of lightly braised fennel that articulate Liberman's earthy-meets-sweet leitmotif in a half-dozen different ways. Given the dish's complexity, and all the cooks involved in its creation, $25 hardly seems like a break-even price. Go now before AQ's owners discover they're selling themselves short.