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Where to Eat Now: Tiny, Pretty Things

Food that's ready for its Instagram.



Read more of our ultimate Where To Eat Now guide here.

What is it with heavily tattooed chefs making exquisitely delicate food? Whatever the reason, we’re all for it. Despite his beard and the arm ink that runs down to his hands, Brett Cooper has a veggie-forward style of cuisine that reflects his soft-spoken, pleasant personality. Cooper, who cooked at both Coi and Outerlands, now resides at Aster (1001 Guerrero St.)—a Daniel Patterson production that opened in the spring.

The tiny Mission district corner spot has a soupçon of florist shop to it: The front windows are lined with plants, flower paintings sit against a wall lined in brown grass cloth, and bright nasturtiums and waifish fennel fronds dot the artfully plated food. (In contrast, the blackened ceiling with its discoish swirl of lights seems to say, “We like florals, but we still have an edge.”)

Both the food and the vibe have the rarefied air that’s become the calling card of Patterson restaurants like Coi and Alta: Asparagus with ham hock and egg ($15) is actually a delicate dance of cured pig and tender shoots; in the spring, Cooper’s vibrant green garlic soup, dotted with croutons, had Instagrammers swooning.

At Outerlands, Cooper learned the way of the perfect crusty sourdough loaf—with just a hint of sour—and it shows up here with cultured butter. Resist having more than one slice, because Sean Ehland’s desserts are eminently deserving of your attention: A brick of frozen chocolate gets an unexpected but refreshing tweak from basil oil, and a beet and rhubarb crémeux makes ethereal music with white chocolate and hazelnuts.

There was obviously a bit of a wink in the naming of Al’s Place (1499 Valencia St.), which turns out to be quite the opposite of a greasy spoon. Instead, it’s a sunny and modern little corner of the Mission created by Aaron London, who appears to have adopted Michael Pollan’s words to the wise: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

London, formerly a chef at Ubuntu, a celebrated (and now-closed) vegetarian restaurant in Napa, clearly thought about that mantra as he put together his veg-heavy menu, where proteins take the backseat. It’s the kind of cooking that asks you to order a dish described as “royal trumpets, fava mayo, pickled green peach relish” and ask questions later. (The upshot? It’s fantastic.)

Sardinian pearl pasta with pickled-fava broth ($15) is a hearty concoction showered with shavings of tender goat’s gouda. Found in the “snackles” section, french fries are brine-fermented and then fried to an addictive chewy crispness and served with smoked applesauce. Luckily, the mustorder dessert—a brownie à la mode with an oozy, caramel and peanut Payday-inspired center—is neither pickled nor precious.

The latest Napa outing from local empire builders Michael and Christina Gyetvan (their other holdings are Norman Rose and Azzurro Pizzeria e Enoteca), Atlas Social (1124 1st St, Napa) crosses the globe for its flavors, plucking them from places as diverse as Spain, India, Mexico, and, go figure, Northern California.

It’s a conceit that works because the restaurant’s chef, Nick Ritchie, understands how to parlay such far-flung inspirations into cohesive dishes. Masala-spiced chicken skewers get a lush, earthy accompaniment from eggplant-pepper muhammara and pine nut syrup; a wee glass jar of smoked-trout rillettes, served with rectangles of caraway-rye toast, has a dizzying, melt-in-yourmouth quality that transcends all culinary borders.

The dining room, trimmed with lots of dark wood and tile, is handsome but slightly impersonal: It could be a restaurant in a high-end airport lounge—which, given its worldly inspiration, seems entirely appropriate.


Read More:

Tiny, Pretty Things: Food that's ready for Instagram

A Ground Meat Groundswell: Burgers aren't going anywhere.

Prix Fixe Holdouts and Casual Refinements: Fancy still has its place.

Keeping it in the Family: Platters are the new plates.

Destination Neighborhood Joints: Local spots with wide-ranging appeal.

France, Now and Forever: The bistro still abides.

Eating, Drinking, and the Other Way Around: Bar or restaurant? You be the judge.

Next Wave Asian: Redrawing culinary borders.



Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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