At the beginning of this year, I decided to focus my reviews on the Mission. I wanted to focus on the changing taste of the neighborhood, and on how Valencia Street has become a place that deliciously and contentiously mixes pocket-change papusas and gilded fine dining. Amid the tension, I've craved proof of some good things happening. For now, Al's Place does the trick.
The outside is painted an ebullient bright blue, and catches light on the gray street like a fleck of glass. Inside, former Ubuntu chef Aaron London is inverting what many would call a traditional menu. Fish and vegetables are front and center, while meat comes on the side. The menu has four parts: snackles, cold/cool, warm/hot and sides.
Snackles include the labor-intensive spiced Vadouvan almonds London made at Ubuntu, and treats such as a trout head cooked under a brick. Under a bit of lemon vinaigrette, it's best torn apart with the hands. Just be careful to dodge the eyeballs. Or not. The asparagus – plated with tart currant soffrito, a cloudlike pillow of burrata and small chips of potato skin – was the first hint that something exciting is happening at Al's. The parts were so perfectly choreographed, the dish felt peaceful.
I loved the tangle of tonnarelli with green garlic. Swaddled in soft citrus of bergamot and underpinned by a funky dose of cured tuna roe, the pasta was one of the most interesting and delicious I've had in a very long time.
Sunchoke curry poured over black lime cod and grapefruit had the grit and depth of a homemade, hand-pounded curry paste, peppered with surprising and beautiful slivers of black-lime cod.
Dish after dish offered elucidating juxtapositions that fractured the line between opposites in a way that makes one realize that two things belong together – as long as they're in the right hands. Take, for example, the grits.
At $16, London's grits are by far the most expensive bowl of grits I've ever had. They also were best bowl of grits I've ever had. Rich and creamy, they came crowned with a sprinkling of sweet green peas, a dollop of goat's milk curds and chanterelles.
Like much of London's food, the simplicity of peas on grits belies the restaurant's creativity, how it subtly combines verdant liveliness and tempered luxury.
I tasted it again in the jowl ham sprinkled in sea grapes that popped, like tiny exploding oceans, between my teeth. The dish – essentially pig parts tangled in seaweed, which sounds like an accident on the Oregon coast – actually tastes like the product of an artist that loves his kitchen and his diners.
In some ways, Al's Place is part of the new wave of establishments on Valencia, where places to waste money are spreading like spores. Yet your dollars won't be wasted here. While it's not cheap, it offers a rare combination: It's both nurturing and full of heart.
Location: 1499 Valencia St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 416-6136, www.alsplacesf.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays and Sundays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays
Suggested dishes: Grits with goat’s milk curds ($16), asparagus with currant soffrito ($13), jowl ham with seaweed and anchovies ($13)
Price range: $6 to $16
Credit cards: All major