Ayala to Reinvigorate S.F.'s Union Square with Fresh Seafood Takes
Bill Montagne's first West Coast venture will feature an impressive raw bar, cured fish boards, and high-concept martinis.
Named after Juan de Ayala, the Spanish captain who sailed into San Francisco Bay, the corner restaurant will offer sustainably sourced seafood complemented by local farmers' market finds in a minimalist, casual setting.
Ayala marks chef-partner Bill Montagne’s (Le Bernardin, Nico Osteria) first venture on the West Coast. Moving to San Francisco from Chicago, Montagne brings along his fish experience and expertise honed from years spent in some of the country's most well-regarded seafood-focused kitchens. Montagne earned two consecutive Jean Banchet Awards for his work at both Snaggletooth, his 17-seat “passion project” with Jennifer Kim; and Nico Osteria, which focused on coastal Italian cuisine.
The move to the coast now seems inevitable for Montagne, who was born in Detroit. Not only would it be a move towards the source of seafood, but also towards the farmers with whom he already has long-standing relationships.
“I used to ship [stone fruit] from Frog Hollow [Farms] to Chicago so that we could use it at the restaurant," he says. "The stuff’s out of control. The first week I was in California, I went to the farmer’s market and Frog Hollow has a huge stand there and they were cutting up Asian pears for people to try. I was thinking, I can just come up and buy these."
At Ayala, Montagne and executive chef Melissa Perfit (Top Chef alum and former executive chef of Bar Crudo) aim to offer a "flexible" menu to their guests, "whether it’s a leisurely dining experience, a celebratory meal, or a quick cocktail and some oysters with friends,” says Perfit. The space presents three distinct dining experiences in The Oysterette, The Dining Room, and The Raw Bar. Guests can enjoy West Coast oysters from Tomales Bay, Pacific Baja, and Washington along with bubbles in their lounge-like space at a low, velvet banquette or high-dining rail with side-by-side barstools. Dark marble table and bar tops elegantly contrast with the white tile floor in the Oysterette.
Adjacent to that is the main dining room, which features lengthwise, dark blue upholstered seating, high ceilings from which chandeliers hang and illuminate a space sustained by wooden tables and floor. The seasonal menu takes center stage here, where one of the prime items for sharing is the cured fish board, which draws upon the technique Montagne first learned during his years studying with Gray Kunz in New York. Seafood offerings veer into comfort food territory with items like housemade pastas, soups, and other sumptuous proteins, from nori spaghettini tossed with Dungeness crab in white miso to cioppino verde with mussels, prawns, squid, and Dungeness crab soaking up a tomatillo-poblano broth.
Overlooking parts of the dining room is Ayala’s raw bar, a cozy area enclosed by hand-plastered walls and arched ceilings where guests can observe the preparation of shellfish and crudo dishes. This semi-private section, which is available for events, features a standing communal bar and posh tufted bench seating illuminated by brass sconces, providing an intimate and semi-secluded experience.
The wine program, overseen by Nick Tilly and Essam Kardosh, is also inspired by the sea. “We are focusing largely on places that derive influence from the water, whether it be near rivers or from seabed soils; also [included are] maritime and continental climates with some Mediterranean wines thrown in the mix because of that salty air,” explains Tilly. Drawing upon Tilly’s experience running a natural wine bar in New York, the team’s selection shows an inclination towards organic, biodynamic, and natural producers. “I want it to be deceptively naturally leaning—approachable and also transparently made.”
The cocktail program by Julian Cox seeks to complement the flavors of the seafood on the menu by focusing on the classics—but with a twist or two. There’s a fig leaf-infused rum Old Fashioned, for example, as well as a gin Sazerac. The drink menu is split into shaken and stirred, but at the center of the menu is a trio of martinis.
In it, guests will find an inverse Gibson (that is, two parts vermouth instead of gin) and a seasonal martini that will switch out from time to time. But the masterpiece captures the essence of the fresh Castelvetrano olive at its core (or should I say, pit?). Olive stock is made from centrifuging fresh Castelvetrano olives, which replaces the salty, vinegar-based olive brine that would normally be used to make a martini dirty. Gin is infused with the olive scraps, washed with olive oil for a weightier mouthfeel, and then frozen. Then, it’s combined with gin that hasn’t been doctored at all for the martini’s backbone and sprayed with grey salt. The whole thing is served in a frozen glass with fresh, chilled Castelvetrano olives bought in small batches for the ultimate martini.
Ayala, 398 Geary Street, San Francisco. 415-374-7971