The return of Aaron London

The American chef, after vegetarian Ubuntu, conquered San Francisco with his new AL's Place

Aaron London: a James Beard Foundation Award nomin

Aaron London: a James Beard Foundation Award nomination, a Michelin star conquered with the totally vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu, in Napa Valley. After this experience, however, it took him four years to find the necessary funds to open his dream restaurant: AL's Place (tel. +1.415.4166136). But when he managed, in little less than a year he got the success he desired

«You take a perfect peach, hot in the sun, a little juicy, and pull it off the tree and eat it, and it has all the components of a Michelin three-star dish» Aaron London

How would you react if a chef in disgrace, back from a six-month retire in Tuscany would take away the best steak in town from the restaurant next door and tried to explain that panzanella is no good? This is specious question but it’s also the perfect description of how partial I was when Aaron London opened his AL's Place – twenty metres and a floor below my home, where once was a flea-bitten diner that grilled a rib-eye steak like no others, twenty-four hours per day.

I ignored him every day, on my way back from work, walking scornfully in front of the simple glass doors with blue background. A door that became gradually more crowded. First a small group, then a couple of benches, then a line that at times was two blocks long. Then came the prize for best new restaurant in the US given by Bon Appetit, less than a year after its opening.

At this point my mind magically thought this success was due to me – “if I stop hating it perhaps it will close”, I thought – and I went inside (“Went inside” is in fact only a narrative trick, as in movies, to put it short. The first available table was four months later).

You can’t say Chef London makes life easy for you when it comes to prejudgement.

First of all, this character overwhelms the fame of his food, a legendary aura that seems the artificially-made narrative of a TV star chef – from the training, during his home arrest, to a career full of incredible episodes that look more like a script than real life, in which each success is followed by mishap. The press kit is a bit of a boaster, but in fact in person he turns out to be affable, open, modest and always ready to learn. If you had only a negative thought about Aaron London, you then need to go confess yourself.

Lightly cured Trout with crispy potatoes and sedate mousse

Lightly cured Trout with crispy potatoes and sedate mousse

In the menu, his approach to food seems the one of a Food Network talent show winner – dishes that appear to have no coherence, derivative, a mere combination of techniques, textures and the right colours. You end reading the most snobbish menu ever heard of only to learn that the dish turns out to be, every time, a unique tasting.

He went on board the wild fermentation wagon with the speed of light, just like half of the talentless local chefs who desperately try to monetise the stroke of luck of a restaurant that is the local mecca of US foodies, Mission District, that is. Yet London did exactly the opposite, innovating and inventing in a still very young scene.

The menu keeps on changing so going into details is impossible. I’ve been three times at AL's Place, and never found a common element with one night and the other. What never changes is the approach. Aaron London arrives from Ubuntu, a vegetarian restaurant in which he achieved a Michelin star. At AL's Place instead you can find both fish and meat, but on the side. A concept that has the unquestionable advantage of limiting the bill to around $30, in a place where on average the entrée is now by itself around $40.

I personally find the terms presented on pasta insurmountable. Pasta used as a pure texture element may work, as long as you don’t call it pasta. The brain expects maccheroni, it doesn’t matter how good what you’re eating is, there’s something in the taste mechanism which (at least with me) jams – in case my words weren’t enough to explain the unease, think of a soup of lasagne.

The Sunchoke Curry with black lime cod and grapefruit

The Sunchoke Curry with black lime cod and grapefruit

This however will not prevent me from declaring that the Fregola with fermented pea broth at AL's Place is perhaps the best Fregola I’ve ever tasted and if you’d like any hope of finding it, you must come around the end of May: AL's Place uses local and exclusive ingredients.

Potatoes farmed to order within the Specialty Potatoes project at the University of Davis and two farms, both in Napa Valley – on Monticello Road – whose production is entirely dedicated to the kitchen and clients of Aaron London. A very strict control of production allows him to concentrate on what he calls “micro-seasonal” vegetables, that is to say products that are only available for a few weeks, if not a few days, every year.

AL's Place
1499 Valencia Street
San Francisco
Open only in the evening, from Wednesdays till Sundays


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