The idea of a place where almost no light can penetrate might seem like an inauspicious metaphor for troubled Downtown San Francisco, but one restaurateur is betting hard on it.
Peter Hemsley closed his ambitious Folsom Street art gallery-slash-restaurant Palette several months back, but he’s since changed the concept to Aphotic, a seafood-centric enterprise that takes a commitment to sustainability to new heights—or maybe new depths.
It’s called Aphotic, from the Greek-derived word for the area of the water column where only 1% of sunlight reaches, and it's intended to be a project that looks at at underappreciated fish and seafood while reexamining what good sourcing practices mean.
After souring on conventional seafood and its spotty efforts at traceability, Hemsley, a veteran of ultra high-end restaurants Michael Mina and Quince, promises to work directly with traditional fishers and other ethical purveyors. And Aphotic is so dedicated to quality seafood, in fact, that virtually every dish on the opening menu contains something or other from the sea—up to and including oyster ice cream.
The Northern California coast has long tethered the state to Japan, and dishes like a wasabi-laced rockfish crudo from Bodega Bay or a prawn risotto with uni and crab build on those traditions. Available a la carte or as part of a 10-course, $230 tasting menu, it’s something of a return to the city’s pre-Covid dining scene.
The 7,000-bottle wine cellar anchors a serious approach to beverage pairings, but Aphotic’s cocktails grow out of an in-house distillation program that makes use of locally produced spirits and foraged ingredients. And in keeping with the theme, the interior is inky dark and the lighting is low.
In Hemsley’s eyes, luxury and ethics don’t have to be at odds, but that doesn’t mean squaring that circle is easy. Gestures meant to restore balance to the ocean can spark a backlash—as when a Maine congressman wanted to sue the Monterey Bay Aquarium for putting lobster on its red list.
SoMa is also in trouble, with small businesses vanishing and the nearby Central Subway failing to attract a devoted ridership. Any green shoots of a food-driven renaissance in the area are mostly for the fast-casual lunch crowd so far, but Hemsley’s project shows that the neighborhood’s appeal is as enduring as the taste of bluefin tuna.
📍 816 Folsom St.
Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]