What To Order At AL's Place Restaurant In The Mission| Tasting Table SF

AL's Place evokes fine dining in a more casual atmosphere

Sometimes we want the benefit of a fine dining experience—the stunning, chef-driven vision—without the commitment of prix fixe menus and white tablecloths.

We've found the best of both worlds at AL's Place, the brand-new project from chef Aaron London, now open on the cozy corner of 26th and Valencia.

Ubuntu vet London is no stranger to fine dining swagger, but here at his Place (AL = Aaron London, of course), he's taking much of that Ubuntu philosophy—beautifully presented, veg-centric fare—and reinterpreting it into a comfortable format. Oh, and he's making use of fish and meat, too.

The space is white and inviting. Part dream kitchen, part Mediterranean dining room, the restaurant is busy without feeling rushed. You might catch the strains of a Prince tune over the buzz of the crowd.

The dining room and chef Aaron London 

Start with one or two of the "snackles" (all $6), shareable bites that pair excellently with an aperitif (AL's has a nice selection low-octane cocktails, all $10, named for Reservoir Dogs characters). We dug the garden fritters: The perfectly fried nuggets boast a golden-crisp exterior and an almost creamy interior rich with a subtle vegetal flavor. The accompanying fennel mayo is worth a double- (or triple-) dip.

London's sure hand with vegetables is no surprise and is reflected in the seasonal, produce-heavy lean to the menu. Seafood is peppered in many main dishes, while other meat and fish options are listed as sides. In addition to snackles and sides, the menu is divided into cold and hot sections; ordering around two dishes per person results in the right amount of food, with room for dessert (or extra orders of Josey Baker Bread, available by request).

Take a stunning cold dish of "lightly cured" trout ($16). The precisely cut, jewel-toned slices of fish evoke sushi in their pure, tender freshness; they're perfectly contrasted by the rich fried potatoes on top of which they rest, nigiri like.

Hot dishes similarly strike the balance of distinctive, surprising flavors working in concert with each other. Sunchoke curry with black cod and grapefruit ($17) tastes of Thailand, thanks to the heady aroma of kaffir lime; still, the earthy richness of the sunchoke shines through every bite. Fresh tonnarelli ($15) tossed with bright green garlic is brightened with tangy bergamot and lends a salty punch with a blizzard of shaved bottarga.

As for those meat sides? They're equally memorable. Tender grilled octopus ($20), served with a marvelous pink peppercorn vinaigrette, is blistered with a sultry layer of char. We were equally seduced by a luscious duck breast (market price), which had a crisply seared exterior and a ruby-hued center.

The surety of London's vision comes through in his delicate touch on each dish: the lovely plating, the surprising pop of unexpected flavors, the manner in which seemingly disparate influences manage to unify with subtly. It's the kind of clarity we're delighted to find in a restaurant that we can easily see returning to on the regular.

Particularly if Prince is on the soundtrack.