Shining season

AQ lights up SoMa with high creativity and affordable prices

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Little gem salad with sardines and watermelon radish at AQ
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY VIRGINIA MILLER

virginia@sfbg.com

APPETITE In its opening weeks, AQ in SoMa* reminds me of lauded Commonwealth and Sons and Daughters. At all three restaurants, precision marries inventiveness — at a reasonable cost. AQ's starters are $9 or $13, while entrees are $24. After dining in cities the world and country over, I can vouch that it is rare to see this level of skill and creativity at this price.

Seasonal menus are a dime a dozen here, but how often do you see seasonal trees and plants with seasonal bar glassware, and a seasonally changing bar top? As AQ's bar morphs from copper to Italian marble for the winter and fall leaves enliven, the space exudes celebratory beauty. There's exposed brick, funky whisk lighting, open kitchen, and a ridiculously cool basement lounge with mid-century lamps and couches viewable from a mini-bridge walkway at the restaurant's entrance.

Then there's the food. Owner-executive chef Mark Liberman combines New York and San Francisco sensibilities with Mediterranean and French influences. But when it comes to style and ingredients, he's decidedly Californian. (Liberman has cooked on both coasts, as well as in France and Napa, and with Daniel Boulud and Joël Robuchon in Vegas). Nuance prevails without getting mired in overwrought fussiness. Starters are small, but entrees are as filling as they are complex.

All this comes into focus when you taste Monterey squid and charred avocado ($9). Parsnips and grapefruit add brightness, while black sesame char over silky avocado ushers in a dish rich, earthy, unusual. A delicate starter, it is rife with flavor.

I adore boudin noir (blood sausage or black pudding, depending on if you're from the US or UK-Ireland) and Liberman's version is a thrill. A warm, spiced pile of tender meat (not in a sausage casing) is companion to chestnuts done three ways ($9): raw, confit, and as a cream sauce. With quince and sorrel, the dish pops. At this point, I'm catching my breath at the level of detail and sapidity, recalling countless basic salads or sandwiches I've had for the same price.

Not as revelatory as the charred avocado or boudin noir, a toasted barley and Dungeness crab dish ($13) tossed with mushrooms and Douglas fir, still pleased, as did the cauliflower ($9) in various iterations from charred to raw, doused in vadouvan spices with golden raisins. In the Autumn spirit, roasted pumpkin ($10) sits alongside carrots, ancho cress greens, with a heaping scoop of mascarpone cream. Even a little gem salad in buttermilk dressing ($10) fends off typicality with poppy seeds, watermelon radish, and cured sardines.

On the entree front, one witnesses Liberman's range in a juicy, utterly satisfying slow-cooked veal breast (all entrees $24), subtly candied in orange, accompanied by unfried, plump sweetbreads and broccoli. He does not leave vegetarians in the shadows with Kohlrabi "Bourguignon." Kohlrabi, a brawny German turnip, stands stoically in the center of the plate, a root sprouting from the dish with flair. Notes of horseradish and star anise peek out, but it's the red wine sauce that must be lapped up.

Desserts ($8) are equally expert in detail but didn't wholly captivate. I enjoyed ginger cake with Asian pear and salted toffee, cooked in Amaro Montenegro, and a devil's chocolate cake dusted in coffee and smoked streusel, with shavings of roasted white chocolate — although I could have used more smoked streusel to bring out the earthiness of the cake.

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