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AQ Restaurant & Bar

High-concept fare in a gritty corner of the city.

As the seasons change, so does the decor at this South of Market newbie, where in winter “trees” in the dining room lose their leaves and tables are blanketed in white cloths, as if frosted by an overnight snow. Against this shifting backdrop, Marc Liber­man, formerly of La Folie, puts on a flashy show in his open kitchen, using torches, tweezers, and other tools that signal his fondness for high-concept cuisine. Nothing on his menu is as simple as it sounds. The almonds he alludes to in the pear salad arrive as quivering disks of almond-milk panna cotta. The walnuts he describes in his agnolotti of wild greens (with oyster emulsion and pre­served lemons) turn up as a dusty cube of walnut powder that liquefies on contact with your tongue. If you enjoy asking questions (“Waiter, what’s that squid ink doing in my hangar steak?” “Why, it’s darkening the oxtail and licorice root reduc­tion”), this is your kind of place. And even if you don’t, you’ll applaud the restaurant’s bold ambitions. Not everything sings; a boudin noir in chestnut sauce has a cloying taste and a mushy texture. But AQ is young, trying to find its footing in a crowded landscape. It’s promising enough that you’ll want to make your way back as winter fades to see and taste whatever’s new in spring. 1085 Mission St. (bet. 6th and 7th Sts.), S.F., 415-341-9000 $$ DRW **½

By Josh Sens, San Francisco's restaurant critic