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  • Photography by Peden + Munk
  • Words by Mr Tom M Ford, Features Writer, MR PORTER

"Fall is probably my favourite period here, with the reds, oranges and yellows. And when winter comes around, there's a palpable formality I love." For someone who lives in an unchanging West Coast climate, Mr Matt Semmelhack's enthusiasm for the seasons might seem rather odd. Not, however, when you consider he's the brains behind AQ - the acclaimed restaurant on San Francisco's Mission Street that he set up in 2011 with executive chef Mr Mark Liberman (previously of Michelin-starred La Folie, also in San Francisco). Blending an easy-going Californian style with intricate fine dining, Mr Semmelhack's eatery offers not just a menu that is seasonal, but an entire décor, too.

Seeking to "strike while the iron is hot", the restaurateur has two more spaces on the way this month - both part of the Mercer Restaurant Group he founded in 2008, with no previous restaurant experience. This quest to keep dining fresh and fun will include TBD, a venture offering food prepared on a wood fire that will open next door to AQ, while Mélange Market will launch nearby in the ODC theatre. Next year, Mr Semmelhack will unveil the first restaurant in the Market Square development: aka Twitter HQ. Keeping things within the decidedly un-gentrified area of Mid-Market, Mr Semmelhack is conquering a corner of San Francisco one might not have associated with quality food.

As they put the finishing touches to their autumn set-up in AQ, we booked ourselves in to take a tour of the space and discuss Mr Semmelhack's upcoming projects. Click through the slides, above, to explore some of the unique features of the restaurant.

aq-sf.com

You used to work in real estate consulting, so how did AQ come about?
I set up Mercer Restaurant Group so I could go and work at restaurants as an operations manager or a consultant. I loved to eat and drink but had no idea how these things worked. It was eye opening to find how disorganised and unprofessional some restaurants were. People in San Francisco and California take what they put into their bodies very personally and they let you know about it. We wanted to start something special with AQ.
What sets it apart from other restaurants?
Within San Francisco there are a lot of amazing restaurants that use fantastic ingredients, but we take it a little further. Our chefs never use a dish twice. We try to make sure people have something they've never had before and we'll consistently impress you. It's sometimes a problem pushing the envelope as people are thrown off.
Each season you change the décor, too. How does that work?
We close on a Sunday night and then we re-open on Tuesday evening when we've changed everything. Three days ago, we were still in "summer". It's very hectic and there's lots of precarious standing on ladders and carrying, but it looks different, feels fresh, and keeps it interesting. I like the warm wood tables at the moment, and the staff wear check shirts with autumn colours. There's a certain feeling when you walk outside into a new season - whether it be fresh snow or a summer's day. We want to recreate that.

People in San Francisco and California take what they put into their bodies very personally and they let you know about it

How does that work in San Francisco, of all places?
It's pretty much the same temperature here all the time - there's a joke that people here don't know what season it is. Some customers think the restaurant has closed or there are new owners. We love surprising people and creating an experience which is reflected in the food.
So how would you describe the food here?
It's a modern take on classic dishes, with a Californian sensibility. There are a lot of fresh ingredients but we have really elaborate components to each plate. A very popular fall dish we had was a venison tartare. We started with a fantastic piece of meat but added a mustard ice cream. It's classic, fine cooking but we don't take ourselves too seriously.
What can we expect for fall?
Without saying too much, we plan on an all-truffle tasting menu. It showcases the ingredient in as many ways as possible. You might have shaved truffle on a mushroom risotto, but in the next dish you'll see it in a way you've never had it before. We like to have dishes where the protein isn't the centre. The produce is so good here - why can't the legume or the parsnip be the star?
Talk us through your other projects.
We have a lot of talented people, but we don't want to lose them, so you have to be aggressive to keep a momentum. TBD (to be determined) opens next month. It's a lot of fun because everything is cooked over a 10ft-wide brick fireplace and the menu changes daily. Also opening then is Mélange, which will be an incubator for all types of different upstart food people in San Francisco - a chance for people who make cookies at home, for example, to sell in a space.
What else?
Our next restaurant is our most ambitious project to date. Bon Marché will be an all-day updated brasserie. It's our take on [famed New York eatery] Balthazar. We've never done breakfast and lunch before, so it'll be a lot of fun.
What attracted you to this area?
We're pretty committed to this area. It hasn't been that well developed so we want to help change that. I believe a restaurant or a ground-floor retail outlet can jump start a neighbourhood such as Mid-Market. The reason for looking at the space for Bon Marché is that Twitter is the main tenant in the building. That was a big pull - a young tech crowd with good incomes. For AQ, we looked at 49 other spaces and the building was very old with a lot of character. We just wanted a cool space we could make our own and hopefully bring people to the neighbourhood.

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