Into the Deep at Aphotic

There’s something hypnotic about Aphotic. The darkened room where Palette and, for those with longer memories, Lulu, once held sway thrums with a visceral energy. Underneath a vaulted ceiling, well-lighted silhouettes of stunning walnut cabinetry and floral arrangements frame banquette tables draped in white linen. A walnut bar faces the open kitchen while a larger bar with a separate menu lines a far wall. The power of lighting is its ability to define space and the effect borders on surreal – every table its own island amidst a bustling sea.

the dining bar at Aphotic restaurant, San Francisco
photo courtesy of Aphotic

Dressed in shimmery grey suits with blue or grey tie, servers not only fit in with the scene but seem to emerge from the depths, bearing blown glass water carafes meant to evoke waves or one of wave-evoking plates in the nine-course tasting menu.  With this many courses and an optional wine pairing, the meal, too, comes at you in waves.

chilled martini at Aphotic restaurant San Francisco
Chilled signature martini

The Martini Trolley Arrives

Up first, a signature martini. A walnut-topped trolley arrives, bearing house made tinctures, vermouth and dulse and juniper-infused navy-strength gins. Garnished with a Tsar Nicolai caviar-stuffed olive, our apron-clad chef, with a candle of his own, built the cocktail on the spot, pouring the concoction into a v-shaped martini glass, the better to savor the aromatics, my dear. Subtle aromas of dulse and orange wafted above the juniper. On the palate, there is a sense of salinity and the softness of green tea in balance with the juniper. Clean and fresh as a coastal breeze. I could’ve ended the meal here.

Trout dish at Aphotic restaurant San Francisco

Rethinking Seafood

Hoping to amplify the discussion around seafood sourcing, chef Peter Hemsley “goes deep” on seafood, propelling diners through nine courses of sustainability sourced and thoughtfully considered water-dwelling animals. Arriving on a golden plate, trout is perched on a triangle of sushi rice and adorned with seaweed. Caviar is set amidst glistening scallops, flowers and tiny miners lettuce reminiscent of lily pads. Rockfish crudo is dressed with house made garum, a nod to the Roman fermented fish sauce and a sustainable ending for all the bones in the kitchen. A course called Milk Bread is a ring of five yeasted pull-apart rolls  designed for swiping through the accompanying Béarnaise – look close so you don’t miss the Dungeness crab hidden beneath its creamy golden surface.

Rockfish crudo with garum tipping from a service carafe
Rockfish, photo courtesy of Aphotic

Chef Hemsley’s Tricks are Treats

If Hemsley’s intent is to deceive the eye, he succeeds on nearly every dish. Prawn is a dish of masago-topped risotto, the prawn hidden amidst rice cooked to emphasize the knife’s edge of texture a chef must achieve to accomplish al dente, but not undercooked, arborio. Served in a dark bowl, Abalone is similarly hidden, its quiet flavor too shy to add spark beneath a salted broth sea. But the dish that best captured Hemsley’s playful intent is Oyster. Into an oyster shell, an oyster-sized dollop of oyster-infused ice cream stands in for an actual oyster. A spray of foam and a sprig of seaweed are visual clues that it’s a dessert course. (A more traditional cake follows.)

Oyster dessert at Aphotic restaurant San Francisco

Bar Director Trevin Hutchins (ONE65, Palette) had as much fun naming the cocktails – a section called Swell includes shaken and refreshing drinks like a gimlet and a daiquiri and Swell indicates alcohol-forward – look for the Black Sea Old Fashioned with fish sauce demerara here and don’t miss it. The Abyss is the after-dinner section, while Sea Level includes non-alcoholic refreshers. This is to say nothing of the extensive wine list which runs to nearly 7,000 bottles from every corner of the world as well as some exceptional Krug cuvees.

About the Bathroom

Last but certainly not least is the restroom where hundreds of pieces of found driftwood line the walls. The effect is powerful, a reminder of the sea’s bounty and its never-ending capacity to erode and reshape it and the structures that are within its grasp. The sea, you see, is like her god, Poseidon. The protector of mariners who created the storms and maelstroms against which the seamen had to survive.

A meal at Aphotic does not toss you around in the sea. Rather, it challenges your imagination of what the waters around us can produce and captures the essence of chef Hemsley’s intent – to shed light on the sea’s depths. There’s more here than meets the eye and anyway, your eyes capture only part of the Aphotic experience.  Your brain, heart and stomach must do their part to enjoy chef’s work, too.