Glints Of Creativity Didn’t Make Up For Aster’s Lack Of Refinement

So what is California cuisine?  Place a diverse mix of people from Mexico, Japan, China, and Europe in a region with rich volcanic soils, large expansive coastlines, and water abundant microclimates (pre-drought of course).  Add a local passion for food.  The result is a culinary cornucopia notable for its local produce, fresh seafood, complex wines, ingredient presentation, and inspirations from a wide range of cultures.  The cuisine has an expansive presence in the city and shows its influences throughout many categories of restaurants including French, Italian, and New American.  Seven weeks ago restaurateur Daniel Patterson and chef Brett Cooper opened Aster, an upscale Mission restaurant targeting the California cuisine.

Not that the Mission District needed another upscale restaurant offering California cuisine.  Similar $55+ per person establishments have become increasingly common these days in the Mission (and throughout the city) and we admittedly are getting food and wallet fatigue from these restaurants.  Can Aster stand out from the crowd and offer a unique experience worthy of our hard earned money?  Aiming to find out, we visited the restaurant to judge for ourselves.

 A welcoming hostess greeted us at the front door and promptly seated us at the end of a long wooden communal table.  My initial gaze drifted to the large front windows, where an active Saturday night scene was playing out.  Guerrero street was animated with whizzing cars and people briskly walking down the sidewalks.  A look at my immediate surroundings showed rustic beige walls adorned with large flower paintings, a blackened ceiling with strips of LED lighting glowing in double helix patterns, and a brightly lit open kitchen radiating a positive flow of energy.  The environment was lively yet comfortable.

Menu And Wine

As I scanned the menu, the dishes seemed diverse, unique, and balanced but the prices were somewhat lopsided with entrees averaging around $30 and most other items including appetizers hovering at half that amount.  We eventually decided on the cod, beef, green garlic soup, and glass of wine.

Wine, an important aspect of California cuisine, can greatly enhance the dining experience when it’s properly selected and paired.  Of the 23 offered wines, we chose a 2013 Syrah from producer Maxime Graillot.  The wine, which glistened a burgundy red under candlelight, exhibited high acidity and was dominated by mineral and briny flavors.  Considering its variety, we were expecting more complexity, fuller body, and a fruitier flavor profile.

Green Garlic Soup

And we waited. And waited. Ah, here comes the bread.  The bread’s chewy texture, tangy flavor, and fresh homemade aromas made us forget our relatively long wait for the first dish.  Our eyes opened widely as we ogled at the smear of fresh creamy butter.  Always a pleasant surprise when we see fresh butter and this example did not disappoint.

After a borderline uncomfortable wait, our dishes began to appear.  First came the green garlic soup, which arrived as a bowl of thick green puree topped with a medley of ingredients including chopped dill, parsley, coriander flowers, cubed croutons, and small dollops of yellow lemon curd.  The soup’s velvety smooth texture, fresh garlicky onion flavors, and occasional zing of lemon pungency played an interesting dance on the tongue.

Entrees

Just as we started to impatiently look around, a server finally presented both entrees.  The Black Cod dish consisted of two cod fillets wrapped in chard leaves lying over a bed of chopped green beans and warm bone marrow broth.  Reminiscent of jumbo stuffed grape leaves, the steamed fillets were supple and fresh but I missed the flavorful caramelization wrought from other cooking preparations such as pansearing and grilling.  The broth was savory and flavorful but the crunchy raw beans seemed disconnected from other ingredients.

We then turned to our beef dish.  Glistening under the lights in shades of carmine, slices of aged beef were set on a flattened heap of farro porridge and partially obscured by lettuce leaves.  Given the dish’s $33 price, high expectations were set on the texture and flavor of the meat due to the aging process.  Disappointingly, the aging did not work its magic, as the meat lacked the flavor, scent, and tenderness of aged beef.  Connective tissue remained tough, making the meat difficult to chew.

Savory Dessert

Who doesn’t like a happy ending?  We moved on to the restaurant’s desserts where we chose a “savory” selection recommended by our waitress.  While we waited for its arrival, my mind wandered back to a pea flan (courtesy of pastry chef Kaley Laird) I enjoyed at last year’s visit to Aveline.  Back then I wrote, “The pea flan dessert boldly rejects the idea that desserts should be appreciated for their sweetness and rather emphasizes enjoyment through complexity and thoughtful preparation techniques.”  Could I be equally as smitten with the poached rhubarb confection that lay before me?  A layer of sponge cake and rich cream showed potential and the topping of miniature cubed rhubarb demonstrated creativity.  What was missing was ingredient cohesion and harmony.  The rhubarb bits seemed to just sit alone above the creamy pastry layer and a thin liquid sauce added little complementary or enhancing flavor.

Final Word 2.5 Stars

Despite reports of tipless pricing, our check included a line for a tip which we obediently provided.  We dropped $140 including tip on the table and exited the restaurant.  As we walked back to our car I felt somewhat cheated.  There were glimmers of inventiveness in the experience, but overall I struggled to find the emotion, inspiration and memorable takeaways.  For the price I wanted to see more refinement in the cooking techniques, better ingredient synergies, faster order turnaround, and a more engaging staff that could, for example, recommend a wine based on our dish selections.  I would gladly pay for passion, precision, and an enthusiastic staff (Californios, Plin, and Game come to mind), but I start getting stingy when those qualities are missing.

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