Mark Liberman is intense, dynamic, refined, whimsical and constantly striving for originality, that most elusive quality that has tortured every chef who ever aspired to take cooking to new heights.
Liberman is a Folsom kid who grew up to be a fabulous chef. Now he's shooting to the top of the San Francisco fine-dining scene with a skill set that will at once challenge and soothe even the most adventurous and discerning epicureans.
His personality and talent are everywhere to be found in his cooking – plate after beautiful plate at a new restaurant called AQ Restaurant & Bar, a casual and sophisticated oasis in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood.
Liberman wants to take the stuffiness out of fine dining. Judging by the menu, he wants to keep us guessing. We see ingredients, but they say nothing about what will arrive at the table.
The menu is also refreshingly simple: $10 for appetizers, $25 for entrees and $8 for dessert.
His early work there shows off a mix of bold and reassuring flavors, a bounty of finely honed, disparate and, thus, entertaining juxtapositions of textures, and one pleasant surprise after the other.
Several of the dishes I had at AQ were among the most stimulating, creative and skillfully executed I have had anywhere – including such Michelin-rated modernist wonders as Meadowood in St. Helena and Corton, WD-50 and Eleven Madison Park in New York City.
Liberman is one of ours, and we could get him back. I traveled to AQ to find out what he is up to, come to grips with how good he really is and give Sacramento foodies a preview of what we might get if he opens a restaurant here, as he has pledged to do.
Though the timetable is uncertain, Liberman has signed on to open a Barcelona-style tapas restaurant in the soon-to-be redeveloped 700 block of K Street. That concept would allow him leeway to showcase his inventiveness and wide range.
Liberman loves the Sacramento area, but he had to leave to find out how much. In 2005, while working at the underappreciated Cascades restaurant in Roseville, Liberman left town in a huff. In a very public lament, the young chef said, "People in Sacramento are afraid to eat."
We are a town, he opined, of calamari and crab cakes, seared ahi and Caesar salad.
He wanted to do more and, with his creative juices flowing, absolutely needed to do more.
Years later, what we see at AQ is the growth of a culinary artist – an older, more grounded chef whose style demands to be appreciated but cannot be pigeonholed.
He is old-school and cutting edge, someone who knows when to employ tried-and-true technique and when to reach into his bag of tricks to pull off something that dazzles and delights.
He will dry-age the duck and cure the pork belly, techniques that unite him with artisans of centuries past. But he'll also cook that pork sealed in a cryovac bag in a water bath technique known as sous vide, meticulously controlling the temperature for 24 hours until the flavor deepens and the texture practically melts away when it hits your tongue.
On the amazing venison tartare dish, he tops the nearly raw and wonderfully flavored meat with a helping of mustard ice cream, set off with pickled mustard seed and mustard flour. Sitting next to it is bread made with celery root.
Even in San Francisco, I heard the servers playing up the appeal of this menu item to reluctant, if curious, diners.
One offering of fish is called branzino, a European sea bass served with the crisp skin intact. The fish was tender and rich, but it was the accompaniments that elevated it still further. Two kinds of potato – one, potato gnocchi; the other, a crunchy dollop of mashed potatoes that had been puréed with cream and gelatin, then frozen, cut into rectangles and, when heated, liquefied inside by the gelatin while remaining crunchy on the exterior.
Liberman's food is farm- to-table and seasonal, but many of his ingredients are either wonderfully odd or underutilized.
This chef buys pig's blood by the gallon – he needs it to make boudin noir, the famous French blood pork sausage that was the first dish I tried at AQ. I was blown away. It was edgy and forceful, but it also was elegant and finely realized. With its deep-red hue, the pork's flavor had great depth, yet the texture was impossibly tender and velvety. Set off with a foam that cut into the richness of the pork, the dish also included a small serving of Brussels sprouts, whose outer leaves had been peeled away to focus on the sweetness inside.
What kind of chef offers up a small plate featuring a Jerusalem artichoke paired with leaves of young kale that have been deep-fried in rice oil? It's endlessly entertaining, biting down on that meaty artichoke and then nibbling on a crisp, wrinkled triangle of kale that was absent any of the bitter flavor notes I anticipated.
Lamb tongue with lentils and smoked dates. Charred avocado with Monterey squid, parsnips and grapefruit.
What will Liberman do next? And will this homegrown chef on the verge of greatness find his way home?
I asked him that awhile back on Facebook, alarmed by the news that he was heading to San Francisco.
"Sacramento is a very special place to me. I don't want people to think that I don't want to be there," he responded. "It was just taking longer than expected and I really needed to get back in the kitchen. I miss cooking."
Stay tuned, Sacramento. Until then, follow him to AQ for food that is sure to bring Liberman much acclaim – in San Francisco and well beyond.
Hours: dinner 5:30-11 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
Full bar? Yes.
Vegetarian friendly? Yes.
Overall: 4 stars (excellent)
While the atmosphere is more than pleasant, the food is the star here, thanks to the passion, skill and brilliance of chef Mark Liberman, who grew up in Folsom and has plans to open a tapas bar in downtown Sacramento. By then, he'll likely get his Michelin star at AQ.
Food: 4 stars (excellent)
AQ has been open for only a matter of months, but Liberman is already inspiring all kinds of superlatives for his cooking – seasonal, modern, traditional, inventive. Whatever you want to call it, the menu and the execution in the kitchen make for brilliant food. The small but clever wine list and inventive cocktails (see the website) only accentuate the kitchen's winning ways.
Service: 3 stars (good)
They know their stuff, they pay attention and they never missed an opportunity to add to our experience. Expect this category to improve as the restaurant matures.
Ambience: 4 stars (excellent)
Take an old, overlooked building in a seedy part of town and transform it into something beautiful. The result is AQ, which shows off the space with inventive touches like the tree branch chandelier. The vibe in the room is pleasant and energetic.
Value: 4 stars (excellent)
The menu gets right to the point. Appetizers are $10, main dishes are $25 and desserts $8. That's keeping it simple. The food is so sophisticated, clever and refined that you should be more than happy with the price tag.
Noteworthy: AQ's menu changes with the seasons, which only adds to our curiosity: What will Liberman come up with next?