Earlier this month, a new seafood restaurant swam its way into San Francisco, bringing with it a tasting menu that stars sea life in every sweet and savory course. The new Aphotic comes from chef Peter Hemsley, who previously operated Palette in the same SoMa space the new restaurant calls home. Hemsley closed Palette to pivot to the new concept in February, reopening to unveil a dramatic space wrapped in inky black paint, nut brown woods, and mahogany-hued leather.
Hemsley says the restaurant’s goal is to set a new standard for transparency in seafood sourcing, and through every course, he aims to connect diners more directly to the people pulling products out of the water. “We’re not just another seafood restaurant,” he says simply.
Here we take a closer look at some of the dishes on the Aphotic menu:
Smoked trout onigiri
The 10-course tasting menu kicks off with this small bite, one Hemsley says serves as a great introduction to the restaurant’s ethos around seafood sourcing. “It kind of gets down to the bone of what we’re doing: really fostering relationships,” he says. It’s meant to be a small but impactful dish starring Mt. Lassen trout, prized by chefs for its clean flavor. While many restaurants buy fish from the northern California farm, Hemsley says he drives up to the mountains every two weeks for harvesting day to help select the product himself.
From there the kitchen drew inspiration from Japanese onigiri, opting to cure and then smoke the trout and place it atop a small ball of rice. They crown the dish with smoked trout roe. It’s also from Mt. Lassen trout but sourced via Tsar Nicoulai, which processes the trout eggs for the farm — a prime example of synergy between two local producers, Hemsley says.
Caviar and spot prawns
The third course gets into seriously luxurious territory. “I wanted to put one of our most expensive ingredients with another of our most expensive ingredients,” Hemsley says. “It gives our guests a sense of the quality that’s being given to them, in a genuinely unmanipulated way as much as possible.” The “expensive ingredients” in question are spot prawns coming from Adam Aliotti, a fisherman out of Monterey Bay, and caviar, specifically Tsar Nicoulai’s golden osetra.
Hemsley crafts a wreath of the unctuous raw spot prawns and adorns it with baby nasturtium leaves for a little pepperiness, candied kumquats for a citrus element, radish batons, triangular cuts of green apple, and edible flowers. Then, in place of the usual caviar-and-blini combo, Hemsley swaps in made-in-house fish crackers. The team combines house-made fish stock with tapioca starch before frying up little crackers that puff up in the heat. “I think it provides that textural element to the dish because you're already dealing with two soft textures,” Hemsley says.
Prawn risotto with uni
For the sixth course, nearing the pinnacle of the tasting menu, Hemsley amps up the flavor. “This is a very impactful flavor-forward dish,” he says. The course, which Hemsley says he developed along with chef de cuisine Parker Brown, centers around prawns from TransparentSea Farms, a sustainable aquaculture farm in Downey, California which Hemsley prefers for its product’s exceptionally pure flavor profile. The prawns get paired with risotto cooked in shellfish stock that’s made using an abundant mix of shrimp, prawn, spiny lobster, and other would-be kitchen discards. A heavy amount of uni butter contributes a creamy richness that’s only supplemented by a slab of fresh uni sitting in the center of the plate. Across the top, the kitchen floats a salty-savory crab foam. With the foam concealing most of the dish’s other elements, there’s a bit of drama in the reveal. “It’s a very powerful bite,” Hemsley says.
Skate with green garlic
In the final savory course, Hemsley nixed the usual luxury ingredient suspects for a small portion of skate, the bottom-feeder often dismissed as a trash fish — “which is kind of the irony I’m highlighting on the menu here,” says Hemsley, who’s sourcing the skate from Steve Fitz fishing out of Half Moon Bay. Pulling from his experience cooking in classical French restaurants, Hemsley pan-fries the filet in butter, garlic, and thyme and riffs on a traditional grenobloise. “It just kind of licks up all those flavors and really presents moist and flavorful,” the chef says.
The rest of the set leans into the flavors of the season, in particular the vibrant profile of fresh alliums. Hemsley reduces down a rich green garlic sauce that's bolstered with smoky made-in-house fish stock, cut with sherry vinegar, and mounted with butter. Final touches are an array of alliums: wilted leeks, charred baby spring onions, chive oil, and onion blossoms.
Oyster ice cream with mignonette foam
And the restaurant’s commitment to seafood doesn’t stop with the savory courses. Dessert begins with a cold course of oyster ice cream. Pastry chef Deirdre Balao Rieutort-Louis “gets fishy,” Hemsley says, infusing a dairy base with the bivalves before adding a small amount of sugar to sweeten the flavor profile. To mirror the classic raw oyster and mignonette preparation, the team makes an airy citrus foam that’s dabbed atop a quenelle of ice cream. Across the top, they lay a single crisp sea bean. “It's playful,” Hemsley says. “It’s kind of messing with what you know, your experience, kind of tripping your palate and the sensory notes that you feel.”
The tasting menu will rotate seasonally though some dishes will remain fundamentally the same, the chef says. But regardless of the specifics of the preparations, the chef says he hopes the restaurant will encourage diners to think more critically about seafood sourcing — and about the diverse array of partnerships that fuel Aphotic’s kitchen. “I think the fundamental message is this is a best practices seafood restaurant,” he says. “There's no other way to capture that than saying it like that.”
Aphotic (816 Folsom Street in San Francisco) serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m.