What's next on the "Meh"nu

What's next on the "Meh"nu

Any changes today, Chef? “No.” This goes on for 10 months.

10 months later. Any changes today Chef? Yes: We are changing the entire tasting menu. 

Well, almost the entire menu. To be fair, I did update the bar menu in 2023 majorly, with the inclusion of our fish charcuterie program, which is about as avant-garde as it gets in the Bay Area, but this was a compendium to an already forward seeking culinary program in seafood. But, as for the tasting selections of the menu, it took a while to update our offerings at Aphotic for a host of reasons. Let's start from the beginning.

In the Spring of 2023 when we opened our doors introducing the world, and the Bay Area in particular, to Aphotic, we were slapped by some pretty unfortunate circumstances. Slowest in class from US cities to crawl out of the doldrums of the Pandemic, San Francisco was being berated, for good reason, by national and international press, for its incredibly inactive posture to salvaging the important downtown commercial sector, “the City’s core”, ambivalence to an open air drug market, spiking crime and petty theft without enforcement, and City services like common transportation and street cleaning curtailed to a minimal fraction in proportion to the need. Sheer incompetence on a global scale, all while annoying low priority "services" like the SF parking patrol were still uselessly at it like hamsters to a wheel. Curiously, during this period, taxes remained stable as the highest in the land, and the real estate market rebuffed extreme market pressures that would normally see rampant discounts on commercial and residential property, inciting a bonanza of activity that would have ultimately salvaged a wave of losses. The result in early 2023 was what some forecasted as the “Doom Loop”, a spiral of negative consequences that understandably witnessed the exit of the City’s wealthy and talented due to the utter lack of incentives to stay, leaving much of the City in economic peril and degradation. We were definitely feeling that in the Spring of 2023, with the news reinforcing and encouraging the reality that we were seeing on the empty streets and buildings of a downtown sector that was booming less than a decade ago.

So, in response to the complicated environmental circumstance, we doubled down, shaved the price point of our menu by 100 dollars (135$, down from 235$) for a 10 course luxury seafood experience like no other, as a means to incentivize the remaining SF market to venture downtown and enjoy the fruits of our extreme labor. This was not an easy process, a bit like starting over again after having gone through hell (opening a restaurant), and reformatting our offerings to market conditions (shit). We did what we had to do. We undercut the market, still providing the same egregiously sourced and technically mastered fish tasting menu with impeccable service, and witnessed a slow but steady increase in traffic despite the “doom gloom” fog that was hanging over our heads, and the City in general. 

The plan, as it has always been, was to keep that 10 course tasting menu running for about a 6 month period. This would allow a large enough dining community the opportunity to try our painstakingly researched menu, witnessing potential repeat guests once or twice during that period, and then updating the menu in broad strokes in conjunction with the major flows of seasonality in the fish world. 

The plan, however, did not go to plan. We got word in the early Summer, while we were already making arrangements and conducting menu ideation for the upcoming turn, that the Michelin Guide selects would be announced in July (usually in December, so a couple of months ahead), and that the ceremony would be situated in the Bay Area for California for the 2023 session. The destiny of Aphotic changed dramatically when we were awarded our first Michelin star, and a Michelin Green star for our fish traceability program, and we saw a substantial increase in bookings for our tasting menu experience. The day after the announcement we witnessed a staggering 500 bookings, in case anyone out there doubts the clout of the Michelin Guide. Our plan to update the menu in July/August was soon cast aside as we collectively realized that we we too busy to pinpoint the new menu items, and at any rate, most of our guests coming in from the post Michelin announcements were looking to try the menu that we had been running for the last 6 months. We were reenergized, and largely due to our new status granted by the Michelin boost.

Additionally, after we mowed through a busy July and August, we came to terms with the fact that we had missed the window to update our menu based on seasonal fish options - a major component of our planning is amassing enough stock in specific niche items that allows us to execute a menu for a 6 month window. There are certain fish items that do not preserve well in frozen, dry-aged, or salted and conserved formats. Tuna is a great example of a local item that is available during the peak Summer months, as it swims north in search of food, which cannot be preserved in a prime presentable format in the fine dining context. So, we ended up running our opening menu for about 11 months in total, right until our Winter break and closure in January of this year, and planned to reopen with an almost entirely new tasting menu, with an even more incredible array of service pieces sourced from far afield, and a face-lifted kitchen and expo area showcasing the dualism of our uniquely designed “open” kitchen, to full effect. 

The menu, from my perspective, and that of the management team, has been a topic of intense debate and scrutiny - and this is indeed the mind-set of a cutting edge professional team. My internal compass always pushes me to “better”, and nicer than before - its a sickness really that is born from an intense hatred of complacency, self-deprecation that is innate to persons with middle-child syndrome, and perfectionism that is wrought by type-"A"ism of the Capricornian astrological orientation . The challenge as a chef, as always, is to continuously improve the quality of your product, its delivery, in the quest that pits oneself and Team against the increasingly critical regard of our growing dining community. Once the first Michelin star has been earned, the level of expectation from our guests achieves a new level - one that is seasoned by comparative others in a diverse pool of relatively competitive service and culinary profiles. We were expecting that, indeed anticipating it in many ways, and I always thought that our Team and our space had the DNA for something more. So, I have actively pushed my Team to push themselves to higher aspirations of quality and service. Avoid or embrace the “meh” reviews from our dining community by constantly pushing ourselves to punch higher than the weight category that we have been assigned to by the culinary authorities. 

That leads us into this round’s change of menu. Due to the drama of waiting almost a year for an update, I sent myself into a rampage of self-improving measures that has reset the playing field for my Team, recalibrating our mind-set in a way that has witnessed increase in motivation, energy and excitement, as well as a renewed sense of purpose to a higher cause. That’s a heavy menu change indeed!  Certainly, this intensity cannot not be replicated every 6 months with equal magnitude, but the momentum and desire are there, and it takes this investment in updating our mentality, as well as the physical attributes of the restaurant itself, to achieve progress at the restaurant. I will expand on some of the categories that sets this round of changes apart in particular, which frankly, in listing them, reveal themselves as the foundational pillars of hospitality: food, beverage, service wares, and space. 

The process began, as it usually does, with a sketch. One idea, or one dish, that determined the trajectory for the rest of the menu. I arrived early one Saturday morning in November after the farmer’s market run, and penciled out an idea based on something I had in mind for a dessert that incorporated fish bone meal into a cake that would be presented in a glass cloche - influenced, I guess, by the famous Parisian taxidermy house  - Deyrolles, the culinary exploits of Australian fish wizard Josh Niland, and the desire to come up with a dessert that was an inspiring finale to a ten course line up. Pastry Chef Dierdre Rieutort ran with me on this idea for a couple of weeks, before she ultimately moved into something more palatable than bones (I now think that only Tuna bones disintegrate into mushy-enough mass once boiled for hours for anything to be made with them - and we were working with the more accessible but very brittle rock cod and petrale sole bones), and she developed something closer to a creme caramel inspired flan (douglas fir, soy milk, and fish sauce caramel), using smoke as a the point of intrigue. 

What’s important here is that we had landed on a new dish, original inspiration somewhat aside, and this dish required a new specific presentation piece that could not be half-assed in execution. Finding the right service piece is sometimes harder than coming up with the dish. In this case, I delved deep into the glass cloche world, something that would hold smoke in it and remain precious, and came up with the 400 dollar per unit Lobmeyr glass candy dish, a custom blow item from Austria "Click Here", that are hand-made to order. So, knowing that the timeline for delivery of that expensive service piece (actually 30 of them!) would be after our projected timeframe to relaunch, I reached out to Tsuyoshi Kawaguchi, a rep of high end lacquerware in Tokyo that I know, to see if he had any solution for a lacquerware cloche that Chef D had identified on various more commonly accessible online internet resources - but none that had any in the quantity that was needed. Tsuyoshi came up with something perfect from the famed Wajimaya Zen-ni manufacturer, on the Sea of Japan, near Kanazawa. He was able to rush ship us these items before the deadline, and so the problem for that one particular menu item was relieved. Yay!

There are 10-13 menu items on the tasting menu, with the integration of our Chef’s Counter, a 13 course tasting menu exclusive to the 6 seats in front of the hearth, so it is easy to extrapolate that my difficulties in planning for the dishes, which require allocation of assets that are rare and hard to find, sometimes custom made, were magnified by 2-3x as I needed to have backup solutions to almost everything on the menu. Put this into perspective. When I come up with a menu item, like the Monkeyface Prickleback croquette, for example, not only do I need to secure a 6 month supply of that fish - something that comes to us exclusively from the poke-polling efforts of local fishing expert Kirk Lombard out of Half Moon Bay - but I need to think of a perfect vessel to niche the ensuing ball of fishy coconut delight that we have created, think of a unique napkin to diaper that small bite's vessel may be niched into, as well as a bowlate that which niches all three of those items for the Instagramable moment of presentation perfection of our guests. Or, take the Thornyhead miso broth, for another parallel. The Shiru-wan Hizori birch cherry lacquer bowl that so artfully highlights this red-skinned fish, a delicacy sold to primarily Asian communities has been dedicated to us by Jiri Nozicka off of the F/V San Giovanni in Monterey - this bowl may look cheap to the untrained eye, having the feel of plastic, and you would not be wrong, as lacquerware resin is a rare naturally occurring plastic extracted from the Urushi tree, a native to Japan, but is considered the highest level of luxury in the realm of lacquerware finishes. On a purely practical level, lacquerware is a perfect vessel for a scalding hot broth, as wood insulates the broth, keeping the liquid hot, and protecting your hands as you pick up the bowl to sip. 

This, and many other examples, is the level of the thinking that it requires to come up with a beautiful, impressive, and performing collective service experience on the food side, and it takes a close coordination with Michael McDonald, our General Manager, to make sure that we are on the same page, and that both he and I are in agreement about what comes out of the kitchen, what it is presented on, with what instrument the guest uses to consume what we lay in front of them, and in Michael’s case - what they consume in pairing harmony with the food. 

I will not go into much extensive detail beyond what has already been demonstrated with a couple of our menu items, from a product research perspective, but I will say that Michael pushes me to excellence by being that critical nag that brings up the micro faults in our service pieces that drive me to the extremes in order to find stuff that works because it is beautiful, functional, unique in the world, and seamlessly fits into our service plan in an ever growing array of fantastically curated objects. The thousand dollar Gyokusendu hand hammered copper tea pot with the perfect pitch so that the Thorny head miso broth doesn’t dribble over the table cloth or walnut counter-top at the hearth - somehow becomes a needed item. The lacquerware wooden daggers, coming from a niche Japanese website not published in English, which are the perfect instrument for spreading caviar on those airy fish chips with raw spot prawn - we got to have them. Custom made silver spoons with seaweed looking handles from Ted Meuhling in NYC - the perfect fit for the iconic Oyster Ice Cream. Madness.

(Just look at the perfect dribble....1000 dollar dribble)

Oenologicaly speaking, Michael has been slowly, but methodically, creating one of the most competitive wine lists in the City. He is, in effect, our General Manager, but handles the wine collection without the official title of “wine director”, and is probably the most underrated wine geek and professional in the City. That will likely change soon, but in the meantime he has been working on steadily increasing our holdings by focusing on finding excellent wines, and purchasing limited amounts of them, therefore increasing our collective number of SKUs, without ladening our collection with an excess of volume in any single category. The strategy is simple, providing for ever growing diversity in options, while remaining nimble and competitive. In addition, the more fluid selections on the wine pairing showcase his incredible palate for pairing wine with food, with quality and intrigue as the desired outcome. The 12 year barrel aged sake that has oxidized notes that are reminiscent of aged sherry or vin jaune, is a wonder, and it perfectly accords with the steamed Dungeness crab head bun, with peanutty savory hoisin. Michael told me that he has been waiting years to pair that wine on a tasting menu, which demonstrates the longevity of his perspective.

The spirits too, were not overlooked.  Unique to SF, and arguably to the country, our in-house distilling program, spearheaded by Bar Director, Trevin Hutchins, and supported by Bar Manager Michael Nathan, is without comparison. These guys are authors of some of the most inventive cocktails in the City, which are very popular with our clientele. The Aphotic Martini, a house made Dulse seaweed gin rendition which is served table side from a cart, earned accolades this year as being Esquire's top 15 in the country, and earned Trevin the cover spot on the bar industry periodical Imbibe. The new addition to our service offerings in this category will be the n/a beverage pairing, which highlights a trend that is quickly becoming a staple for competitive full service fine dining restaurant. Trevin, Michael, and Michael McDonald have gone to great lengths in planning for this beverage offering, in terms of the glasses and service pieces that we be employed in its execution, creativity in the cup, and execution in coordination with food service, and wine service, and in terms of the value that this experience contributes to the guest. One of the challenges to the Team was to execute this service offering in a way that does not pit it against the cocktails or wine pairing as an "alt" pathway to alcohol. Our goal will be to make this beverage pairing desirable for "drinkers" and "non-drinkers" alike for its merits as a beverage experience.  

(“Hey Mike, you want to hear a funny joke?”)

So, finally, we come to the revision of the space. This, after many years of toil, I will consider this as the final revision to Aphotic on 816 Folsom street, and puts us, I think, into a place where we have optimized the architectural floor plan created by kitchen designer nincompoops into something that looks amazing, and works well. These final edits bring us home in a lot of ways. Over our winter break, I pulled out the stainless steel and glass windows over the expo pass (a holdover from the Pandemic), opening up dramatically the usable space for service on the counter surfaces. With the help of Ray Egan, a local manufacturer of cabinetry, we pushed the walnut trim into the kitchen, giving the integrated holistic feel of seamless continuity from the dining room to the kitchen. Decorative brass hanging warming lamps match the warm metals everywhere else in the space, and black decorative paneling running from one side of the kitchen to the other, cover and protect from the view of our guests, much of the ugly industrial look of the open warehouse ceiling and hood lines that were formally a signature of our space.

The guest witnesses food coming out of both windows of the kitchen, but these windows mirror each other, so the service team is constantly moving from both of these spaces in a harmonious flow that signals balance, thoughtful execution, and visual intrigue that keeps the guests in anticipation of the courses to come. We have become masters of non-verbal communication in this service plan, as the 3 expeditors employ brass tokens to move course lines, signaling the progression of a table’s menu as it moves through the meal like chess pieces in anticipation of a Check Mate. This is probably the best system I could come up with, and it will not likely change, as we dial in consistency, timing precision, and impeccable visual presentation. 

Of course, I eagerly anticipate the reviews of our restaurant and the experience had by our guests. This is the feedback that is critical to our improvement, and to knowing if what we are doing is effective. Though I love exuberant praise from our guests, with glowing enthusiasm for the food, service experience, and beverage curations, I am more inspired by those reviews that tell us we have fallen short somehow, that the experience did not meet the expectation, or simply that the guest was not impressed. A “meh” review is the one that keeps me awake at night, that pushes me to question my plans and sensibilities, and keeps me hungry to impress. The question of “how can we improve on what we are doing?”, and more importantly, “what’s next for us?” are always on my mind. 

So, after all of that, the important question of how I feel about the updates to the menu, the restaurant space, and service in general, must be broached? The answer is: “(me)h, too”. I'm not impressed, or at least, I know I can probably do better. Non-complacency is a bitch, and a deviling mother of invention. On to the next menu, I guess. And so it goes.  

Peter J Hemsley

Special thanks to Shadow, my dog, who is my constant companion picking up fish, and on other journeys. Thank you to Kelly Puleio and John Troxell for their amazing photographic genius, witnessed in this Blog post, as well as throughout our journey. 

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