Last month San Francisco welcomed yet another newcomer to its roster of highly acclaimed seafood-centric restaurants. Unlike other seafood spots that may come off as stuffy or ostentatious, Ayala strives to bring to the San Francisco culinary scene a dining experience that showcases the high-quality of seafood the city is known for, in a way that’s inviting and accessible to everyone.
Combing the talent and years of experience of Chef-Partner Bill Montagne, formerly of Le Bernardin and Nico Osteria, and Executive Chef Melissa Perfit former Top Chef Contestant and Executive Chef of San Francisco’s Bar Crudo, Ayala’s menu is one that draws inspiration from Coastal California cuisine. With the newly opened Ayala, the two hope to fill the void in San Francisco’s bustling Union Square for a modern, friendly seafood restaurant.
“The team and I set out to create a unique dining experience with Ayala, a modern neighborhood restaurant that is truly of today’s time and place in San Francisco. The city has some of the most diverse and delicious seafood in the world, yet there weren’t many places where accessible seafood and elevated cuisine were served in warm and welcoming environment,” tells Chef Montagne. “Melissa and I channeled our respective experiences and deep appreciation of high-quality seafood to create inventive dishes that go beyond the traditional with bold flavors and global influencers at the forefront.”
Their goal isn’t to go head-to-head with the city’s esteemed seafood restaurants such as Hog Island Oyster Company, Swans Oyster Depot, Bar Crudo and Anchor Oyster Bar, but instead, complement and further raise the seafood game in this highly concentrated area of the city, explains Chef Perfit.
“We offer the same oysters direct from farms, but do so alongside a pork shank, whole fried red snapper, and handmade pasta,” says Chef Perfit. “We also offer a progressive wine list and handcrafted cocktails, all meant to complement each section of our menu.”
Inspired by Chef Montagne and Chef Perfit’s appreciation and expertise in seafood, this bright and spacious 1,400 square foot restaurant features a dynamic menu filled with a range of innovative dishes served in three distinct dining experiences: the Oysterette, Dining Room and Raw Bar.
With its luxe lounge setting, the Oysterette is for the casual diner in the mood for oysters and bubbly. Next, the Dining Room is meant for, you guessed it, a traditional dining experience. High ceilings, chandeliers and privacy from the rest of the restaurant make for an intimate dining experience. Finally, the Raw Bar is ideal for those interested in a behind-the-scenes look at how the Ayala team whips up a variety of shellfish and crudo dishes. Guests are invited to mix and mingle around the standing communal bar.
Highlights from the menu include fresh oysters from the West Coast waters of Tomales Bay, Pacific Baja, Washington and beyond; Cherrystone Clam with jicama, cucumber and black tobiko lobster oil; its signature, shareable Seafood Charcuterie comprised of cured black cod, halibut, octopus and trout; and Whole Hiramasa made with lobster pho broth, Thai chili, garlic, orange and basil.
Ayala also features bigger entrees that can be eaten solo or family-style. These include house-made pastas, proteins and whole fish preparations. Menu highlights include Nori Spaghettini with Dungeness crab and white miso; Cioppino Verde with mussels, prawns, squid, Dungeness crab and tomatillo-poblano broth, a classic San Francisco dish with a Latin American twist; and Dry Aged New York Strip with potato pave and tropea onion confit.
“Ayala sets itself apart from other seafood restaurants by offering an unexpected take on San Francisco’s vibrant seafood scene, while also creating a sense of familiarity for guests,” says Chef Perfit. “We have worked hard to make sure locals are interested in what we are creating and to be a relevant addition to the rich culture of San Francisco dining while still giving our visiting guests the quintessential San Francisco seafood experience they’re looking for.”
To help you order, we asked what the chef’s favorite dishes are so far, here’s what they had to say.
My favorite dishes on the menu are the Dressed Shigoku Oysters and the Nori Spaghettini. Developing the pasta was such a great collaboration of the minds of the culinary team. It started as a totally different dish and changed gradually with relentless testing by one of our talented sous chefs. The dish has a harmonious balance of umami and acid, which along with the perfect texture of noodles, make it one of our standout dishes. I could even enjoy it without the Dungeness crab and be perfectly happy! The dressed Shigoku oysters are so simple, but the balance of crunch and brightness from the granita with celery, apple, and gin elevate the naturally delicious oyster. It’s the perfect way to start off a meal.
Some of my favorite dishes are the Santa Barbara Sea Urchin and the Petrale Sole. What I love about the urchin is that it is just a beautiful bite of really fresh, cold, briny urchin wrapped in shiso which highlights the seafood, accentuated by lime and yuzu tobiko. The Petrale sole is a local fish which has populations that are actually above the target, meaning that this is a great local option. It is whole roasted and covered with schmaltz braised leeks, brown butter and olives, so it is a really rich approach to a very lean fish.