"Top Chef" fan favorite Casey Thompson has made her San Francisco debut with Aveline, a luxurious restaurant inside the recently-renovated Warwick Hotel. Thompson's focus is on farm-fresh, imaginative, often romantic versions of French and California classics.
You haven't had crab cakes until you've unwrapped a steamy box, decorative ribbon and all, of Thompson's hearty crab macarons. Truly brilliant.
Aveline is the Dallas native's first solo restaurant and the culmination of Thompson's experiences, including her recent years in Napa Valley helping wineries pair up with local farms. Aveline replaced the Tenderloin hotel's former eatery, La Scene. Also new: The European, a swanky, 40-seat bar specializing in craft cocktails from barman Adam Wilson, a veteran of Beretta. While the bar is sexy and masculine, the restaurant is demure and feminine, from the soft, button-tufted seating and neutral tones to the hexagonal Carrera marble tiles and dramatic, 300-bottle wine wall. It divides the restaurant and the open kitchen, which features a chef's counter, so you can see the culinary team, including sous chef Blake Askew and pastry chef Kaley Laird, hard at work.
We started with the crab macarons ($17), thick, meaty cakes presented in a candy box. Instead of blending the crab mixture with breadcrumbs, Thompson seared these beauties like sandwiches. Not only was the presentation genius -- who doesn't want a gift from the chef? -- but it worked on a technical level, too: The cakes stayed warm and benefited from the brief time they spent in hiding.
Another starter, the Vegetable Garden ($16) was vibrant and flashy, its colors catching my eye from across the 60-seat dining room: Chicory and piles of pureed black turtle beans looked like patches of dirt, from which radishes and peas grew amid swirls of mustard cream. I longed to ditch my fork and let my fingers "walk" around the paths.
Silverware was a must for the yolk beignet ($25), a savory, dome-shaped beignet topped with a sliver of Wagyu beef and a thin slice of lardo. When we cut into the pastry, which was sitting in a shallow bowl of fresh spinach and trotter sauce, a poached duck egg oozed its golden yolk, binding the flavors. Wow. We had similar love for the vegetarian favorite of the night, Fazzoletti ($19), delicate pasta handkerchiefs swimming in sweet corn pudding that was balanced with savory lime butter. Tempura squash blossoms provided texture and crunch.
The crunch continued with Thompson's fried chicken ($26), an upscale take on the Korean variety. It came with bright, pickled vegetables, including cauliflower, ginger and micro carrots, dots of red pepper sauce and kimchee powder, a dehydrated, ground version of the fermented pickled cabbage. The three pieces had all the crispiness and juiciness you want from this classic dish without even a hint of oil. Loved it.
The steak lovers at our table ordered the American ($36 per serving) and Japanese ($31 per ounce) Wagyu, seared on the outside, medium-rare throughout and beyond tender. If you haven't had Japanese Wagyu, it is an altogether different meat experience, so melt-in-your-mouth marvelous that the texture is more akin to seafood than beef. It was accompanied by uni mousse, which elevated the cuts even more. But, honestly for the price, the American version, with its whipped mushrooms and pickled onion, was equally exquisite.
Our only dissatisfaction was with dessert. We ordered the Batter Bowl ($13), a throwback to childhood, when we'd lick the brownie bowl clean. Here, the chocolate "batter" -- a blend of cashew, prunes, white bean, sweet potato, dark chocolate and hazelnut -- was tasty, but anticlimactic. After a meal of such delicacy, pastry chef Laird's puree reminded me of something I'd make my picky 3-year-old to trick him into getting some nutrients. I'd actually kill for that recipe. But it wasn't the proper end to one of the most well-crafted, sophisticated meals I've had in recent memory.
" * * * ½
WHERE: 490 Geary St., S.F.
CONTACT: 415-345-2303; www.avelinesf.com
HOURS: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; until 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
CUISINE: New American
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including fazzoletti with roasted corn pudding and squash blossoms, and a vegetable "garden" of turtle bean, chicory "soil," radish top and mustard seed cream
BEVERAGES: Inventive, craft cocktails from The European bar as well as a comprehensive beer and wine program with a focus on artisanal producers from California and France
RESERVATIONS: Strongly recommended
NOISE LEVEL: Loud
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Fried chicken
PLUSES: Creative, romantic spins on Cali cuisine by a "Top Chef" alum
MINUSES: Dessert missed the mark
DATE OPENED: June
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