San Francisco’s latest tasting menu experience opens on Fillmore from a talented and artistic alum of Saison, Atelier Crenn and Benu.
The French Laundry has its salmon tartare cornets. Benu wows every guest with lobster coral xiao long bao. Saison presents diners with an ethereal sea urchin-topped slice of grilled bread each evening when the precious uni is in season. Chef Rodney Wages’ showstopper of a dish, simply called ‘tortellini en brodo,’ packs an equally profound wallop in the same rapid series of powerful flavors as those Northern California hall of fame dishes.
Now, hold on a second. Wages’ debut full-time restaurant, Avery, was just unveiled to the shark-infested waters of the discerning SF dining public and can’t be and shouldn’t be talked about in the same ways as those world-renowned legends at such a young age. However, that signature dish of his pop-up, R.T.B., lives on as a new and defining few bites and spoonfuls at the pop-up’s brick and mortar personality, Avery.
The dish is a remarkable creation in the same pleasurable “hammer you over the head with dense, unrelenting luxurious flavors” as those aforementioned tasting menu staples from the Bay Area’s top toques. Wages takes a rustic Bolognese classic and fills the petite-sized tortellini with cultured butter and mushrooms. Then he partners them with brined and smoked foie gras morsels that boast so much of the latter’s intensity you’d swear they were marinated with mezcal. Then the foie gras and tortellini float in a brodo based on garlic skins — a little seasonal California spark. Everything explodes with precise flavors — fat, umami, nuttiness.
In the pop-up’s days, the dish saw a few different broths, often one based on grilled bacon that really amped up the smoky-rich-meaty profile, but has been tweaked for Avery. It likely will continue to evolve and may even leave the menu tomorrow. Or, it may stay on the menu for decades like Thomas Keller’s salmon cornets. Who knows? Wages is without question a chef and an artist — and artists never settle for anything. This work is just one of several masterpieces diners will encounter in Avery’s opening days.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that there is an artistic angle to the restaurant — from Wages’ food on the delicate plates and ceramics procured from all over the world to the pristine, two-level space — because Avery’s namesake is the early to mid 20th century American artist, Milton Avery.
R.T.B.’s namesake is the playful abbreviation for Wages’ given nickname from some fellow chefs: “Rod the Bod.” Avery, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of a personal connection. It’s not like Milton Avery is Wages’ artistic idol or that there is some deep meaning that opened his eyes to the world and Avery convinced him to be a chef. Wages and his business partner/Avery’s general manager, Matthew Mako, are fascinated by the artist’s intense color explorations and abstract presentations of nature and see similarities between that and their idea for Avery as an imaginative, high-end fine dining stripped down to a casual, relaxed experience. Plus, Avery is a short and sweet name and starts with “A.” So, there’s that.
In the SF pop-up world, there are chefs who came out of nowhere (Lazy Bear) and then there are the majority of the chefs who have worked their way up the ladder in the region’s best restaurants (Liholiho Yacht Club) and decided it’s time to do their own thing. Wages is squarely in the latter.
The chef is a native of Kansas and much of his culinary vision can be credited to what is lacking across his home state’s prairies but is abundant in the Bay Area. Wages’ started restaurant cooking (and dishwashing) as a 15-year old in Leavenworth, Kansas, a town best known for its prison that housed Michael Vick for operating a dog-fighting ring and James Earl Ray a decade before he assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.
Later in high school, Rodney helped those restaurant owners in Leavenworth open a fried chicken concept one town away and that’s when he acknowledges first seriously catching the cooking bug. He graduated from high school a semester early after seeing a cooking school ad in a newspaper and that led him to the Cordon Bleu school in Minneapolis. An internship at the French Laundry proved to be his golden ticket in the industry, spending four years moving around the kitchen in Yountville under its then-chef de cuisine Corey Lee (now chef-owner of Benu) before Wages left to help open (recently closed) RN74 in San Francisco. Wages credits a dinner that he cooked with Lee in Lee’s native Seoul, South Korea as opening his eyes to the techniques and ingredients of East Asian cuisines that was a key part of R.T.B’s style and now Avery’s.
Wages later joined Lee to open Benu and then delved deeper into East Asian cooking (specifically Japan) as chef de cuisine of Morimoto in Napa. He returned to San Francisco fine dining afterwards at Saison, where his name started popping up on “future chefs to watch” radars in the city after two and a half years at the SoMa fixture. That’s where he picked up a love for live-fire cooking — Saison’s signature style and one that occurs again and again at Avery. The chef briefly left the restaurant world to start his own caviar business but decided that cooking for diners is more of his style than selling to customers. So, it was off to Atelier Crenn for a year as chef de cuisine, where he learned more about the business side of restaurants by helping with communications and operations.
That can only mean one thing for highly talented San Francisco chefs — next stop: pop-up then permanent restaurant.
Avery’s staff comes mainly from those final two SF heavyweights on Wages’ resume. Chef de cuisine Kristina Compton was executive sous chef for Wages at Atelier Crenn. Sommelier Daniel Bromberg worked at Les Clos, a now closed wine bar sibling to Saison. Mako was a maître’d at Saison, in addition to working on the opening team at Benu where he met Wages. In short, it’s all in the family of SF tasting menu restaurants.
Compared to the likes of Saison, Benu and Atelier Crenn, Avery is a downright bargain. Of course, it’s a pricey night out but it’s not on the same level of credit card blowout as those peers. The “Cello Player” of seven to nine courses is $89 and the “Shades of Spring” featuring 10-15 courses is $189. Don’t worry, the longer menu will change its name each season. Yes, both menus are indeed named for works by Milton Avery. And, if you are seeking that next-level extravagant menu, then there’s always “Avery’s Room,” the private dining room with a $289 special menu for six to eight guests.
Wages’ cooking falls into the category of lots of ‘kind ofs’ where it’s New American meets contemporary Californian and abstract modernism, with lots of live-fire cooking, some distinct influences from East Asian cuisines and a few hints of European classics tossed in. Confused? Yes, so let’s bypass the labels and sum it up as a deeply personal, highly stylized and very ambitious style of cooking that originates from California’s seasons and covers a wide spectrum of concepts from there, led by live-fire grilling and East Asia.
Similar to R.T.B., the menu descriptions are what you might call simple. There are no shout outs to the farms of Bolinas and in-depth lists of the sauce ingredients. The ‘tortellini en brodo’ is called just that and resides in the middle of both hand-written menus.
The menus will constantly change but, for now, a broth with grains starts both menus. A few dishes from the longer menu, like ‘caviar,’ ‘jamon Iberico,’ ‘Fort Bragg sea urchin’ and ‘snow beef’ made from Wagyu, are offered as supplements on the $89 menu. Otherwise, they have the same core dishes.
Everyone will enjoy a golden spoonful of smoked trout roe hiding an aioli-like concoction made of whipped avocado and sesame. It arrives paired with ‘raw,’ some delicate sashimi, that might be sea bream one night and kanpachi on the next night.
Oysters and aebleskivers come next. It’s not a natural pairing of two dishes being served together but should be. Each oyster is slightly charred to the point of being raw and smoky, joining grilled asparagus and grilled ramps in a French-inspired white wine broth.
‘Aebleskivers’ are Danish doughnut holes or beignets, often served in the traditional sphere-shape and adorned with various glazes or stuffed with fillings. For the world’s gastronomic jet set crowd, aebleskivers are known as a photogenic and frequent staple at Noma in Copenhagen, filled with a tiny fish called muikko with the head and tail poking out both ends. Wages one-ups Redzepi’s aebleskiver creativity with a labor intensive version based on an egg-enriched batter that fluffs up into a shape and consistency like a Parker House roll. It’s filled with diced broccoli that has been blanched in a seaweed broth and grilled with onion butter, then joins garlic puree in the center of the orbs. Then the orbs are topped with garlic mayonnaise, fried shrimp and charred scallions, completing a bread-crispy seafood-mayonnaise trifecta that is as much an example of Japanese takoyaki as it is a stylized Danish doughnut.
Jumping from France and Denmark to Southeast Asia, the seafaring dishes continue with a ‘lobster curry’ fortified by Thai spices, yogurt and coconut oil. Again, the seafood of choice is ever so lightly grilled and chopped into minute pieces, ready to be enjoyed spoonful by spoonful with ‘bamboo rice’ and lentils.
Then comes the ‘tortellini en brodo,’ followed by ‘Northern coast,’ an abstract surf and turf ode to our San Francisco to Eureka coastline. Lamb from Mendocino comes in two forms — raw tenderloin draped over wild nettles and morel mushrooms; and belly that is heavily charred to the point of almost bacon. Abalone with seaweed and coastal greens rounds out the dish.
Avery’s cheese course isn’t just a cart wheeled out and served with compotes and toast. It’s actually a cheese-pecan pie tart, where a buckwheat shell houses a layer of pecan pie filling accented with honey mustard and topped with Harbison, a bloomy-rind cheese wrapped in spruce bark from the esteemed Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. ‘Cake’ and an ice cream course (sometimes made with foie gras at R.T.B.) complete the dinner.
As mentioned before, Wages’ cooking style doesn’t always showcase East Asia flavors but several dishes do as shown above. On cue, the food’s main drinking partner will be sake from an extensive list created by Bromberg. He is an esteemed sake sommelier who helped launch SF’s go-to sake boutique, TrueSake in Hayes Valley, and even interned at Dassai, a sake brewery in Yamaguchi, Japan. His sake roster opens with 50 labels and will eventually grow to over 100 — a rarity in this city at non-expense account sushi and kaiseki restaurants.
There is no better opportunity in San Francisco to explore aged sakes and the whole flavor spectrum of sake — from nama (unpasteurized) to pure, premium daiginjo — than what Bromberg presents at Avery, especially if you opt for the sake-only pairing (the same price as the tasting menus). Wine lovers, don’t worry — Champagne is the other main beverage specialty at Avery. Of course, there are also plenty of impressive New World and Old World bottles and glass pours to accompany dinner, along with a mixed drinks (wine, beer, sake and sparkling wine) pairing also for either $89 or $189.
R.T.B’s home for the latter stages of its pop-up is now where Avery resides, at a prominent position on Fillmore by Geary that’s mainly known as being the Block of State Bird Provisions. The space previously was another tasting menu restaurant, Mosu, that opened as exclusively a $198 tasting menu and became a gentrification symbol much in the same way as Google buses. Diners (other than one prominent critic) felt the food was indeed spectacular (this writer was in that camp) but the space was austere and simple to the point of almost seeming too harsh for appreciating such complex food. Mosu’s chef-owner, Sung Anh, has moved on to open a concept in Seoul and this opportunity presented itself for Wages. There is a definite connection of why this hand off took place so seamlessly compared to most SF restaurant changes. The two worked together at the French Laundry under Corey Lee and Wages considers Sung a mentor. Compton also was a sous chef for Sung during Mosu’s one-year run.
San Francisco-based designer Noz Nozawa of Noz Design reinvigorated the Mosu interior, with the help of Wages and Mako, keeping the same semi-hidden upstairs-downstairs set-up that makes the space somewhat quirky and like dining in a loft with bunk bed-style dining rooms. The entryway has no second story, giving off a grand welcome with the frosted floor to ceiling windows streaming in sunlight but blocking out the Fillmore street activity. A screen-like, semi-secret black wall blocks off the ground floor’s ten seats from the door, adding intrigue to the downstairs dining area where the longer tasting menu is served. The screen-like wall rises to the ceiling and also provides a pseudo-hidden feel for the upstairs dining area where 16 diners can enjoy the shorter tasting menu.
Avery’s two levels are attached by a stairway to the left side of the front door and the immaculate kitchen is attached to the downstairs dining room and appears in clear view with no walls or doors, in the rear of the space. A private dining room, called “Avery’s Room,” is right above the kitchen on the second floor. It’s there that you’ll find some of the wine collection in a gorgeous cellar, ducks and lamb bones dry aging and vegetables pickling in a refrigerator, and all sorts of minute design elements like…Corey Lee’s Benu cookbook and some books on Milton Avery paintings.
Much of the interior’s look is inspired by the earth and sea, bringing together bold swaths of charcoal black, teal and deep green that combine for a design motif that does actually seem to be one part ocean, one part forest and one part stark modernism. Chic black banquettes and bare black tables simply adorned with shell-like candle spheres and tiny plants in coral-like miniature pots serve as a contemporary juxtaposition to the retro, almost “Mad Men” era-evoking white chairs with delightfully oversized backs designed by the legendary Italian firm, Calligaris. Soft, gray mohair blankets on the banquettes invite cozying up, which some diners might be tempted by after course eight and the third glass of wine.
Also, make sure to look up to appreciate the dramatic light fixtures and the skylight in the Avery room, along with looking down to see the elegant patterned carpeting that can look like tide pools along the coast from certain angles.
With all of this design talk, let’s not get ahead of ourselves — the striking interior elements in the two dining spaces are most certainly the custom Venetian plaster wall treatments with murals by San Francisco-based artist Victor Reyes. They’re so impressive that there is a museum-like label and description of the work in the alcove between the downstairs dining room and the kitchen.
Growing up in Milwaukee and Orange County, Reyes was inspired by Francis Bacon’s provocatively dark, yet beautiful works and eventually that led Reyes to become an artist — a graffiti artist, that is. Reyes’ outdoor art and murals really got noticed after his move to San Francisco and a project of painting each letter of the alphabet in the Mission.
Since then, he has received lots of attention and praise for his fascinating artistic sense of exploration and pursuit of mystery through breaking down recognizable objects. Like most modern art, everyone will have their own opinion of what the dining room mural is presenting but there’s no doubt that the sweeping brushes of sea blue against the pale plaster call to mind ocean waves (there’s the earth and sea element, again) and a gritty edge to the elegance provided by luxurious glassware and the finest ingredients on the table. Dare we say, it’s almost a little like a work Avery might do?
Overall, the restaurant’s look is a thrilling, eloquent clash of the unfinished and the refined, the industrial and the polished — something we’ve seen for two decades at bistros, bars and gastropubs and we’re seeing more and more of at higher-end restaurants (see: Benu). Avery has hip hop on the soundtrack, exposed pipes running along the ceiling and plenty of jamon Iberico, foie gras and smoked trout roe for the crowd — yes, the days of Masa’s and Ernie’s are over.
There are also plans for an investor to bring in an actual Avery painting to be a part of the interior design, so stay tuned.
We’re certainly starting to see culinary art literally work together with visual art. It’s an exciting direction for dining to go towards. Remember, it was Corey Lee who brought an innovative restaurant concept, In Situ, to SF MoMA. Now the roles are reversed — the restaurant welcomes the art museum — or, at least is welcoming the artist.
After all, isn’t the best kind of art the edible kind? Don’t we all wish we could take a bite out of the still lifes by Cézanne? Well, this art at Avery is very edible and each tasting menu is as striking as the restaurant namesake’s portfolio of work.