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You Can Call Me AL: Valencia Heats Up Again 

Wednesday, Apr 15 2015
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If you know one thing about AL's Place, Aaron London's 2-month-old restaurant on 26th and Valencia, it's probably that he pulled a switcheroo. Here, the vegetables are the stars while the meats are relegated to the side. As gimmicks go, it's a good one, carving out a new niche in the small plates universe. It probably prefigures a standard Californian diet after another few years of climate change and drought, too. And London, who got a James Beard nomination during his time at Ubuntu in Napa, brings exactly the right amount of flash to this mostly pescatarian endeavor.

Although the "AL" stands for the chef-owner's initials, "AL's Place" sounds more like a luncheonette that serves cops and hard hats and closes at 3 p.m. (There's another Al's Place near Sacramento, an 80-year-old Italian joint that's known locally as "Al the Wop's." No joke.) The San Francisco AL's is not a meat-and-potatoes spot, or even potatoes-and-meat; the presentation is as fastidious as the name is casual.

London has divided his menu into very basic categories: "cold/cool," "warm/hot," and the meatier "sides." There's also a list of $6 "snackles," which is a word that I keep going back and forth on: Is it adorable, or is it insufferable? Among the snackles is a bowl of Vadouvan almonds that tasted like a sugary kids' cereal — until the curry took over. ("I like them but I don't," my dining buddy said, although he kept on eating them, just as I did.)

Virtually everything at AL's was a success, with almost no range of opinion at the table. After one spoonful of the green pea curry (with tuna and a pickled strawberry), you know you're in good hands. The use of something as sweet and bright as a strawberry in a savory dish is impressive, an understated act of showmanship that set the overall tone.

Maybe I was just excited for my first non-homemade asparagus dish of the year, but the snap of salt on those stalks was a great welcome back to the season. I'm not sure I've been served such a generous portion of burrata in a long time, let alone one coated with crumbled potato chips. (It was the best highbrow-lowbrow mash-up I've had since the Pop Rocks granita at Californios.)

But the finest texture of the evening belonged to the fregola with pickled pea broth and goat's gouda (which the server called "our sleeper dish.") While the Sardinian pasta usually looks like Israeli couscous, these salty, briny balls approached the size of corn kernels. Admittedly, to describe them as something between spongy and a wet crunch probably isn't going to get many stomachs growling, but that's where they fell, and it was fantastic.

Just because the meats are secondary doesn't mean they're an afterthought. Since I could eat offal and charcuterie until the nitrites give me a myocardial infarction, I loved the jowl ham more than my tablemate did. Although probably about three-quarters fat, the texture rescued it from its own excess. It was speckled with a phenomenal mix of seaweed and anchovies that's almost like a thick, kelp-y pesto, although it's hard to see what the roe added.

Another side, hanger steak, was perfectly serviceable, portioned as if to be the standard-bearer for the house philosophy. While it was cooked just so and the sherry vinegar balanced out the crab butter, it came off more as an etude than a must-have. You can get hanger steak anywhere; unless you're eating with your parents and the prospect of a pickled strawberry leaves their jaws gaping, you can easily skip it to leave room for more adventures. (Then again, it is only a side.)

If anything, the only true disappointment was the plate of assorted brassicas with yuzu, pickled radish, and wild mushrooms. It's categorized under cool/cold, although since the mushroom layer was warm on the botom, it was hard not to want the entire thing heated up so the dish felt less stridently vegetal or not quite ripe.

It's almost a shame to want to compliment someone else's work, but Josey Baker's bread — available on request and served with salted butter and a fruity olive oil — complements London's. Our server brought seconds and then, as thirds, a double serving, possibly so that we would stop asking already. It was the best possible way to mop up any leftover sauces and retain our membership in the Clean Plate Club.

AL's doesn't have a full liquor license. If you don't know your vermouths and sherries, the five cocktails might sound a little cryptic considering they come with pseudonyms straight out of Reservoir Dogs. Ms. Brown (Fino, Maurin Sec, Cocchi Torino, grapefruit bitters) had a pleasant cocoa flavor, but Mr. White (Cocchi bianco, Cava, orange bitters) was truly excellent, with the blood orange slice against the mammoth ice cube making a sharp visual.

Whoever's distributing white subway tiles to everyone in town has found yet another client, but AL's interior is bright and airy. Even a hostess stand made of humble plywood had cherry blossoms sprucing it up. Although it's becoming a cliché to say that once-smoking Valencia Street has cooled considerably, this is now the southernmost outpost on the strip, a few blocks from the main action. It's as if Vegas developers built another casino-hotel past Mandalay Bay, except instead of desert hardpan, here there's a Salvation Army, St. Luke's Hospital, and the Dovre Club. And although London described his kitchen persona to 7x7 as that of an "ice-man," it seems pretty safe to say this is going to be a hot corner.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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