Restaurant Review: AQ
Last week was my birthday and when my boyfriend asked me where I wanted to go for my birthday dinner, I chose AQ restaurant. AQ opened its doors in early November 2011 and has generated quite a bit of buzz. What makes AQ unique is their seasonal approach to everything they do – from the food to the décor. The name of the restaurant comes from the term “AQ” or “As Quoted,” a term used on classic restaurant menus to describe fresh fish, seasonal or specialty items. Former La Folie chef Mark Lieberman, now executive chef and co-owner of AQ, takes the concept of AQ a step further by utilizing ingredients that are local and seasonal in Northern California and combining them with Mediterranean flavors and employing classic French technique.
When we walked into AQ, it felt a bit like walking into the old Bacar restaurant in SOMA. It had a warm, modern feel with a staircase in the entryway. AQ had a bit more of a rustic twist and a nice bar in the front of the restaurant as well. One of the things that makes AQ unique is that the restaurant not only changes the food with the seasons but also its décor. So to go along with the winter menu, there was winter décor. I think it’s a great concept.
As we walked in a bit further, we could see the kitchen on the left and Mark Lieberman at work. There is some counter seating around the kitchen area for those who are interested. You could also see co-owner Matt Semmelhack walking around and talking with customers. I thought that was pretty cool.
We sat down and took a look at the winter menu. There were lots of interesting and unique items on the menu like chestnuts and venison tartare for starters and entrees like kohlrabi bourguignon and pork with littleneck clams. There were also a nice selection of wines and house cocktails. We started with a couple of cocktails – I had the Fujin’s Friend with vodka and my boyfriend, Jason, had the Blood and Sand. Our cocktails were okay but nothing special compared to some of the drinks I’ve had at other restaurants or bars around town.
Then we ordered the Chestnuts with Boudin noir, quince and brussel sprouts and the Cardoons with Dungeness crab and bagna cauda with pomegranates. We would have tried the venison tartare but they were all out that night. For our entrees, I decided on the Branzine with soft and crunchy potato, chard, guanciale and sweet onion and Jason ordered the Pork and Littleneck clams with heirloom beans, chorizo and parsley.
I have to say, I was not as impressed as I thought I was going to be. Here are my two biggest grips about this place. The first is that some of the portions were a little smaller than I had hoped, especially the starters. For the price you pay for some of these dishes, I think the portions should be a little bigger. Secondly, and most importantly, I felt like the descriptions on the menus were very misleading when it came to what you got. Let me explain. The chestnuts dish we ordered as a starter was, in my mind, a boudin noir dish not chestnut dish. The boudin noir or blood sausage (which if I had know that’s what it was, I would not have ordered it) took center stage in the dish and was accompanied with a few brussel sprouts and a few chestnuts. I feel like a judge on a Food Network cooking competition show like Chopped or the Iron Chef when I say this but it’s true. Another example is the pork and littleneck clams entrée that Jason order. When restaurants say pork, you think pork cutlet or pork chop. Usually if it’s a chop, they specify that or if it’s pork belly, they’ll call that out too. The “pork” in this dish was a large cube of pork, slightly smaller than the size of a Rubix cube. But maybe the bottom two centimeters of the cube was actually meat (which was really tasty) but the rest of the cube as all fat. Gross. I think they should be more specific about things like that on the menu. If I had ordered that, I would not have been able to eat that.
The other dishes we ordered were fine. The cardoons with dungeness crab were a nice light dish. It was garnished with pomegranate foam and some kind of clear gelatin, which did nothing to add flavor to the dish in my opinion. I think it was trying a little too hard to be fancy and fell flat. The best dish of the night was the branzine. The fish was fresh and cooked nicely and the crunchy potato cake was crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside.
For dessert I got the Dark Chocolate Chibouste with graham cracker and torched marshmellow. I thought it was going to be like a chocolate smore dessert sort of thing. It was okay but like some of the other items on the menu, they should tell you the “graham cracker” is graham cracker gelato. Since it was my birthday, they brought me a complimentary dessert – chocolate mousse with chocolate rice crisps served on a whisk with edible flowers. It’s really cute in concept but in the end, it looked like poop on a whisk. I found it to be humorous at first then got kind of grossed out after a couple of bites.
I really wanted to like this restaurant but the food fell short for me. Would I come back again? I think I’m going to need someone to really convince me to go but I would come back to give this place one more try next season.
Here’s a slideshow of some of the meal we had:
1085 Mission Street (between 7th and 8th St.)
San Francisco, CA 94103