For a Seafood Restaurant, Ayala Is All About that Nori Spaghettini

Many spiffy dishes but not always of a coherent identity at Melissa Perfit's hotel-restaurant-for-locals.

Tombo tuna. Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane

Every time it seems like San Francisco’s hotel restaurants figure their shit out, something comes along to act as a check on your sense of hope. For every dashing, novel Gibson, we must have a sterile, trend-chasing B55. In the Hotel G, on the corner of Mason and Geary streets, comes Ayala, a restaurant that is exactly the sum of its excellent parts. It easily dodges any feelings of focus-group conservatism — that leaf-covered-hole-in-the-ground that ensnares so many other hotel restaurants — but it’s very hard to describe it succinctly. “A seafood place with really good pasta” is both technically correct and somehow much too generic.

Ayala is an outward-facing restaurant, clearly hoping to capture more than just the people who’ve tipped a bellman. It has a lot of promise, and not a lot of competition in its environs. Mason and Geary is an unusual corner, with the absolute worst pizza in San Francisco (Bella Lucca) next to a ramen place that used to be amazing (Katana-Ya) and a characterless 24-hour diner (the Pinecrest), but also upstairs cocktail cubbyhole Benjamin Cooper and Little Sheep Mongolian Hotpot. And it’s halfway between Union Square and the A.C.T.-Curran juggernaut. It shouldn’t have a hard time standing out, but it might. Ayala needs to work on its elevator pitch, and a good place to start would be to nix the nebulous menu category “big(r) things.”

This isn’t to administer a paddling based on an abstruse technicality. It’s very easy to find good and even dishes at Ayala, but it’s a little harder to come away feeling like you’ve walked away with a well-rounded dinner composed of small bites of seafood plus a pasta or two. You’re going to drop $100 per person, after all. Considering that executive chef Melissa Perfit comes from Bar Crudo, still one of the greatest places ever to land on Divisadero, she should know. (So maybe it’s the hotel’s doing…?)

Enough speculation. The must-have for the top of your experience is the seafood charcuterie ($21), and not just because the menu draws a helpful circle around it. That it’s locally sourced goes without saying, but it’s a full complement of nice details that improved further over a couple visits. Like the world’s tastiest bathtub appliqué, the octopus torchon is superb, and the black cod with kombu even more so, while the salmon-like steelhead trout has a perfect sort of Zabar’s tang against the horseradish crème fraîche. (Chef-partner Bill Montagne worked at New York’s Le Bernardin.) The drawback? It comes with some “matzoh” crackers that are flimsy and inadequately crunchy, so you wind up using your fork after they inevitably break.

A $14 chicory salad was similarly clever in an understated way, with near-invisible shavings of bottarga combining with the snap of citrus to yield tons of flavor without the whole thing feeling overdressed and -salted. The butter that went with the $6 English muffin suffered from too many different herbs warring against one another, but high marks for doing something so simple and yet so uncommon.

The same could be said for the cioppino verde ($37), which is delicious if absolutely not a cioppino (and bound to cause some confusion on that point). It’s made from tomatillos and poblanos, and while it’s fairly overflowing with shrimp, baby octopuses, mussels, and squid — plus a crab leg dangling happily over the rim — that may be partly because there isn’t all that much broth. Zestier and much less stew-like than its nominal antecedent, it’s gonna make you sweat a little. Is the lobster in the lobster-butter toast strictly necessary? No, but it sure is opulent.

The best dish was similar in style, a $29 nori spaghettini with furikake and that most revelatory of all citruses, buddha’s hand. While I’ve had more al dente noodles, that’s not the point here. The point is to impart a sense of smothering without losing balance, and the Dungeness crab doesn’t vanish into gooey decadence without maintaining its structure. I suspect this recipe took 50 or more tries to get it right.

Other, smaller dishes felt altogether ordinary, like a tombo tuna ($14), trout rillettes ($15), or a flavorless delicata squash ($13) made with some otherwise smartly braised greens and the obligatory chevre. The thing about goat cheese is that it really needs to disappear for a very long time. Everybody loves it, but it’s the least imaginative move a kitchen can make. A piece of black bass (no joke at $36) was fine, with not much more to it than the flavor of fennel, although the peppery tagliolini with Manila clams ($24) is a good suggestion for anyone who needs sturdy noodles above all else.

Ayala has two other strengths: wine and dessert. On every visit, we spoke at length with a somm who was capable, knowledgeable, and eager to lob some curveballs our way — among them a Les Roches Sèches 2015 Grolleau, with a sulfurous nose and an ability to open up into a fermented-licorice note. It was genuinely exciting, although the Domaine Rimbert blend was the better accompaniment to the entrees. While no one could tell this invert what made the Inverted Gibson inverted, it was a savory martini that led right into the seafood charcuterie, and a few other cocktails — the whisky-upon-whiskey Notorious in particular — make excellent aperitifs, too.

Dessert is dying left and right, but Ayala’s offerings shine. Between the mandarin oranges and the chantilly cream, the baba au rhum ($11) is elegant without being cloying. It’s the classic sweet conclusion, but with an errant turn or two you might be left wondering what was just concluded. Hopefully, the arrival of spring and its produce lets Ayala be whatever it wants to be.

Ayala, 398 Geary St., 415-374-7971 or ayalarestaurant.com

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