EVAN DUCHARME/SPECIAL tO THE S.F. EXAMINERA notable starter at Aliment is the fried merquez

Cash isn’t king at otherwise tasty newcomer Aliment

Sixteen cents seems a small sum, but it greatly soured my initial outing at newcomer Aliment.

On a quiet weeknight after a ho-hum meal of bland chicken wings with none of the promised yuzu tartness and a salad of under-grilled little gems with a candy-sweet vinaigrette, I plunked down $40 to cover my bill of $22.84.

My casually indifferent server appeared suddenly stymied by an offer of cash and took off for the corner liquor store for change. As if not being able to break a $20 wasn’t slapdash enough, he returned and placed $17 on the bar in front of me while uttering, “Sorry, but we have to stiff you 16 cents.”

Have to stiff me? If I weren’t in review mode, I would have never returned.

A packed Sunday brunch made for a better, if not only somewhat less amateurish, experience. Our server was a sweetheart of a guy but couldn’t answer basic questions about the menu, constantly reminding us that it was his first day.

If you’re going to charge $18 for short-rib hash, it’s fair to assume the server can describe the dish, no? Good thing the hash, with luscious hunks of meat and perfectly runny slow-cooked eggs, lived up to its price tag.

Better yet were two honking big pieces of juicy chicken, perfectly fried so that the well-seasoned crust shattered into crumby shards on impact. Though the savory waffle balls alongside sounded like a good idea, they turned out to be indistinguishable globs of mush that had my daughter yearning for an actual waffle.

Amazingly, Aliment was again unable to handle a $20 bill as our newbie waiter beelined it for the liquor store. At least this time the change was accurate.

For a final dinner, I arrived with a bit of attitude, warning my guests of an unprofessional operation. So of course our server turned out to be phenomenal, providing detailed answers about the menu, pouring numerous tastes of wine and making great suggestions.

She hyped the fried Brussels sprouts, and for good reason. The addition of caramelized fish sauce played beautifully off of the slightly bitter sprouts, making this one of the best renditions in town.

A starter of fried merquez featured a quartet of lamb meatballs that started off with a hint of smoke that gave way to a gentle kick of spice. A smattering of pistachios added crunch.

Smoke played a larger role in the success of Aliment’s not-to-be missed cavatelli (tagliatelle the night we were there), in which the pasta is lightly smoked before being tossed with a bit of cream, mushrooms and pea shoots. This was the dish that had everyone’s eyes bulging with pleasure after a taste.

Close behind on the favorites list was a generous portion of well-barked hanger steak cooked to a perfect pink and made downright addictive by a soy marinade.

Though both a roasted half-chicken and a whole grilled trout were expertly prepared, they lacked the razzle dazzle of the other dishes covering our table. Both would be fine choices for simpler palates.

To avoid spoiling a near flawless evening, we paid with plastic. I left convinced that Aliment can be a worthy dining spot, but knowing that it depends heavily on who’s working the floor.FeaturesFood & DrinkFood and Wine

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