Umami Bombs and Swell Spaces at Alora

What does it take to succeed as a San Francisco restaurant in 2024? If what I am seeing at Alora and other newcomers like the Presidio’s Dalida and SoMa’s Movida is an indication, Persian flavors are edging in alongside Mexican, and dining rooms are somewhat less lounge-y.

interior at Alora restaurant, San Francisco

Alora interior, photo credit Neetu Laddha

At Alora, tucked inside Pier 3 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront, the dining room feels sophisticated. No lounges here, but plentiful seats at a room-length bar and regular dining tables adorned with trendy cordless table lamps hit that sweet spot between too casual and over-wrought.

A Mediterranean Map Marks the Spot

maps on the menu at Alora, a San Francisco restaurant

I very much appreciated the map of the Mediterranean inside the front and back menu covers. Presumably, chef Ryan McIlwraith (Bellota, Coqueta) asked for this to be included as it draws a through-line from his Spanish flavors at Bellota to what he is doing now.

What To Eat


An array of dishes at Alora, a Mediterranean restaurant in San Francisco

photo credit Neetu Laddha

We started with the stewed olives, seasoned and topped with dill, and a plate of muhammara. (It’s gluten-free!)  Focaccia, part of the olive service, is next-level delicious. Chef used plentiful olive oil and a lovely ferment to build air pockets and a nearly fatty texture into the bread. Yum. I’m not sure what the olives are stuffed with (menu says “fennel pollen” but it seemed more than that?) but they were hearty and warming.

The muhammara was bright and shiny from pomegranate and molasses. I couldn’t stop eating it. You can pair it with sourdough pita or market vegetables. The pita, enriched with einkorn, tasted a little same-same, holding up to the muhammara’s heft.

Stuffed with mushrooms and dressed with avgolemono, dolma were not sweet but savory, a long overdue reinterpretation of a regional classic.  Toppings of roe and pickled chanterelles turned this dish from supermarket throw-away to chef-worthy.

Hamachi crudo with citrus was my least favorite dish of the night. Do you know the “Top Chef” joke about crudo? I don’t remember the season but Tom turns to Padma and says: “Another crudo?” It’s a short cut dish, one that should be an easy win for a chef. Yet this one tasted a little off. Fish was fresh and it was properly presented but the acid-salt-sweet ratio was flat, the citrus too sweet with not enough salt to balance it out. But an easy fix.

An Umami Bomb

Finally, steak shish. If I did not already have a sense of chef McIlwraith’s savory palate, I did after this dish. It is an umami bomb. The sweetness of the grape lacquer lifted off the dish, hitting my nostrils at the same time as the smoke from the grilled beef. Bone marrow “jus” glistened in the lamp light, not so much aromatic as a unifier on the palate of the plate’s flavors. I swiped the brussels sprouts through the marrow melt, adding a dash of hummus (I’m quite sure there is a smoky element to the hummus, too – smoked salt?) and more umami from the maitakes. Crazy dish. I am glad to have experienced it and came away excited.

For dessert, chef sent out a small dish of pear and apricot sorbet with fresh fruit.

Is It Worth It?

Bless my GenX heart, it feels just right in here. The chairs and banquettes are comfortable, the music is not too loud, and the lighting is bright enough to see the menu (thank you, trendy table lamps) while also dim enough to feel like you are out for a special night. The crowd – well-dressed and a little bit older (I’m guessing 30’s to 70’s) lacked the tech bros I’ve seen at other hot spots around town.

Breads, dips and mezze start at $15. Large plates range from $37 to $70. Waterfront views and a beautiful interior feel special. Alora may not offer everyday dining but it does offer the opportunity to spend an evening exploring the flavors of the eastern Mediterranean with an experienced chef and restaurant team. It feels good in here. There are still restaurateurs who care about your comfort. And, after a few hours here, bathing in the warm glow of the well-positioned lamps above and on the table, you may reconsider the lighting in your home.

I have every hope that this is what the future of fine dining looks and tastes like.

Next time, I’d like to try more of the seafood dishes, the eggplant and the lentils. McIlwraith plans to change the menu with the seasons, an opportunity to return and see what he is up to.

And, with more flavors emerging from the eastern Mediterranean and moving into the mainstream San Francisco dining scene, I expect pomegranate to be crowned flavor of the year in 2024.

The terrace at Alora restaurant in San Francisco, with Bay Bridge lights in the background.

Terrace, photo credit Neetu Laddha