My early associations with the Alembic, when it opened a dozen years ago, was that it was a moody, dark place for cocktails, really good cocktails, craft cocktails, which had yet to sweep the city. The food was there to keep the cocktails company, but not something to seek out on its own. Which is why when I heard that in her first year as Alembic’s chef, Rachel Aronow was nominated for a James Beard Rising Star award, I was intrigued. Excited, even. The best thing I’d ever eaten on Haight Street was a Ben & Jerry’s waffle cone.
And now, despite a menu with more downs than ups, the best thing I’ve eaten on Haight Street is Alembic’s fall squash veloute. It’s a fancy word for a thick, velvety sauce, in this case, butternut blended with spices and vegetable stock poured over foamy dollops of Stilton blue cheese and a scattering of squash seeds and cayenne-spiked sunflower seeds that gave each soothing spoonful a surprising crunch. It was a soup fit for birds — and I liked it.
I also liked the Brussels sprouts, whole young bulbs from Half Moon Bay in a maple-aji Amarillo glaze roasted to an addictive chewy-crisp. A simple ceramic slab of wide, slippery ribbons of pappardelle in a hearty lamb ragu was a welcome addition to the otherwise in-your-face fussy entrees. The scallops were lightly seared and profoundly buttery, but plated with foam and flowers and more embellishment than necessary — as were most dishes at the Alembic.
I get it: If you’ve got a 1,000-square-foot garden behind your urban restaurant filled with everything from Walla Walla onions to purple pineapple sage blossoms, you want to flaunt it. Still, I wanted to tell Sade crooning “Smooth Operator” overhead the same thing I wanted to tell the chef: Tone it down a tad.
Had I only consumed the above — plus the jerk-spiced duck hearts and the star of Aronow’s house-made charcuterie board: smoky, thinly-sliced duck prosciutto — I would’ve ordered another Choose Your Knees cocktail (I chose gin, one of at least 40, mixed with orange blossom honey, lavender, and pressed lemon juice, served up) and called it a perfectly fine night. But, of course, I kept eating.
Over three visits, I tried everything on the a la carte menu, including the rabbit. I’m fairly certain we were the only people in the place, let alone on Haight Street, eating rabbit. Then again, it’s Haight Street; you never know.
Eating was actually a strong word. It was more like picking at. Pushing the tea-smoked roulade around the plate like apathetic teenagers, hoping if, perhaps, we found the right bite, it would taste better. Unfortunately, we didn’t. The rabbit meat was fleshy, almost translucent pink, to the point that we repeatedly wondered aloud if it was cooked. Oozing with an unrecognizable mixture of pork belly and foie gras, it was a barely edible bundle, and a most unattractive one — encased in a drab gray pistachio dukkah-rubbed crust that, even for this ardent carnivore, too closely resembled the color of rabbit fur. It didn’t help that the accompanying supposedly roasted sunchokes were as hard as a potato just dug from the field.
I ordered the entree again on my next visit — and again I shouldn’t have.
I tried most things twice. And the second verse was the same as the first. Take the red kuri squash “Tetris” tots. A title that comes with certain expectations: that they be bite-size, yes, but also golden and hot and crisp. The rosy-orangey hue would’ve worked too, had this starter not been the antithesis of all things tot: that is, lukewarm and mushy, and pushed against a mound of pistachio aioli that didn’t add much. “Pigs in a Blanket” is another beloved app that arrived bastardized. A more apt name would have been Hog in a Log — it was a foot-long, panko-fried fatty, stuffed with slow-braised tail, topped with a frizzy toupee of sprouts that didn’t have enough flavor to warrant eating more than a bite or two. Even our party of five left half of the heft on the plate. The Spanish octopus was a tightly wound rubbery mound of tentacles; tucked with pretty romanesco and pink petals and surrounded by verde gel polka dots, it looked like an octopus dolled up for prom.
It’s obvious that Aronow gives the same care and attention to her food that is given to the stellar cocktails, and I hope her Brussels sprouts and fancy soup and charcuterie are a sign of what’s to come. But ultimately I left feeling the same about Alembic as I always have: It’s a great spot for sitting and drinking and snacking — in cozy, wooden, candlelit nooks with the best button-tufted, black leather booths in SF.
But, for now, if you’re looking for an award-winning meal, you might want to go elsewhere.