Aaron London's hotly anticipated, veggie-focused Valencia Street spot Al's Place hit a payday this week, garnering three reviews from the city's remaining paper-based food critics. Beating everyone to the press was Michael Bauer's Sunday review, which his Bauerness kicks off with a reminder for everyone to eat their vegetables. Despite the focus on produce at Al's Place, Bauer only needs one bite of the yellow bean stew, which "quells any desire for meat." With its rich broth, the stew brings Bauer back to "the almost giddy delight of tasting through the menu at the groundbreaking Ubuntu in Napa" where London took over for chef Jeremy Fox before that space closed in 2013.
Back on Valencia Street, however, London's "constantly changing" menu includes a range of meat items offered as sides: fatty pork jowl with seaweed and anchovies, rare duck breast with strawberry molé, or a hanger steak with crab shell butter and sherry vinegar. But those vegetables are where Bauer really finds something to rave about: raw Blue Dane radishes, which are "delivered to the restaurant still planted in the soil" before being washed and dried "practically to order" and placed on your table with coarse salt and quince-skin kraut butter. Then there's a plate of tonnarelli "as bright as spring grass" with green garlic and bergamot. While Bauer finds many of the dishes to be on the acidic side, they're often balanced out with creamy components like the grits with goat milk curd, salsa negra and the vegetable of the moment.
All told, Bauer was impressed with the food, as well as the "stylish, but on a budget" decor and the "personal" service, which usually includes London himself stepping out of the kitchen to deliver a dish. Three stars for the food, two-and-a-half overall.
Over at SF Weekly, new food editor and critic Pete Kane filed his first official review for the paper and it's also a casual breeze through London's new home on Valencia. Kane calls it a "mostly pescatarian endeavor" whose casual name (which it shares with an 80-year-old Italian joint in Sacramento) belies the "fastidious" presentation and "virtually everything" was a success. Kane and his dining buddy get addicted to the Vadouvan almonds from the Snackles portion of the menu that "tasted like sugary kids' cereal — until the curry took over." An asparagus dish with a huge portion of burrata was "a great welcome back to the season," and he's likewise impressed by London's pairing of sweet pickled strawberries and tuna in the green pea curry.
As sides, Kane finds the hanger steak "perfectly serviceable" given the restaurant's focus, but the "fatty as hell" pork jowl dish was a standout with a mix of seaweed and anchovies that was "almost like a thick, kelp-y pesto." The Josey Baker bread, although obviously not made in-house, was so good Kane went in for three orders of it. The only disappointment was one dish of brassicas with wild mushrooms (listed on the "cool" section of the menu) that the critic wished had been heated so it felt "less stridently vegetal."
Finally, the SF Media Co. had to expense a second round of dinners at Al's Place, as Molly Gore also turned in a review of the spot for the Examiner this week. Like Bauer and Kane, Gore finds a lot to love here: a trout head cooked under a brick that's "best picked apart with the hands." That asparagus with currant soffrito gets another nod here, with Gore calling it "so perfectly choreographed" that "the dish felt peaceful." On the other hand, Gore says the pork jowls with seaweed "sounds like an accident on the Oregon coast," but tastes, "like the product of an artist that loves his kitchen and his diners." Overall, Gore raves for Al's Place, pointing out the simplicity of many of London's dishes belies his creativity.
Finally, for something different, Bauer returned to Rose Pistola for his mid-week review and found the nearly 20-year-old North Beach establishment is staying true to tradition with new chef Steve Walker in the kitchen. The food nets two-and-a-half stars, including the pizza that "should be a favorite of anyone who likes a thin, blistered cracker crust," but the service and a "gummy" torta della nonna left a bad taste in Bauer's mouth once he remembered his table had to compete with a ten-top of tourists.