San Francisco is surrounded by water on three of its four sides, and while it seems like that would set the city up to be like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for fish, there just aren’t a ton of seafood restaurants that really excite us. Sure, there are a few standout raw bars like Swan Oyster Depot or spots like La Ciccia that make seafood pasta worth crossing town for, but there aren’t many places like Ayala where just about everything on the menu is both creative and delicious.
This seafood spot on the ground floor of the Hotel G in Union Square looks like a lot of other restaurants around here that you’d come to for a business dinner or to play catch up with some friends who work nearby. It has high white walls, big windows, and a pretty bar where you’ll see people studying corporate pitch decks while sipping cocktails. But unlike the places you really only send your boring relatives to who won’t go more than a half-mile from their nearby hotel, Ayala makes unexpectedly great food that’s worth going out of your way for.
The seafood-focused menu has clear Japanese, Spanish, and New England influences, all of which blend together to make some of the more interesting food we’ve had in a while. There are some more standard items on the menu too, like shellfish towers and a crudo, but most dishes here have a twist that makes each of them a little more memorable than what you’ll find basically anywhere else.
There are raw oysters served with a cooling lime and cucumber mignonette that we could see Poseidon serving as a palette cleanser between courses at an underwater feast. The cioppino verde subs in poblano peppers and tomatillos for the traditionally tomato-based broth, which gives it a nice earthy and tangy flavor, but doesn’t overpower the shellfish in the soup. The whole red snapper is fried bone-in and served with lobster pho broth poured around it at your table - the skin is super crispy, the herbs that come on top brighten everything up, and the broth is light but still somehow packs a ton of lobster flavor. All of this is capped off with the nori spaghetti with big chunks of crab that tastes just enough like the ocean to make you forget you’re actually in a crowded dining room on Geary Street and not by the water. By the time you finish, you’ll have forgotten you had any reservations about going to dinner in Union Square and just be thinking about a reason to come back.
A meal here runs around $85 for an excellent martini or two and a few dishes from each section of the menu (you’ll find things like roasted chicken, salads, and some incredible English muffins here too), so it’s not a place we’d recommend dropping into on a random Tuesday. But if you want to change things up and go somewhere interesting with a group, or get a meal with the visiting clients you always take to Bellota or Mourad, come to Ayala to remind everyone how good a seafood pasta or whole-fried fish can be.
These oysters come with a green garlic prosciutto butter and an orange wedge to squeeze over them. They’re sweet, salty, and buttery, and you can still taste the oysters underneath everything they come with. Make sure everyone at the table gets one of these.
This English muffin with honey butter is spongy and dense like cake. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder why you don’t try baking them at home instead of buying them in a store before you realize that it would be close to impossible to make them this good.
They have a great selection of raw oysters here, but what makes these memorable is the cucumber-lime mignonette that they come with. It’s refreshing and doesn’t overpower the oysters. Order these.
This lightly cured char comes with a sweet tare and red shiso vinegar. It’s a perfectly fine crudo, but is overshadowed by the seafood you’ll order around it, and won’t be one of the first things you tell people about after you eat here.
This is without a doubt one of the best seafood pastas is San Francisco. The spaghetti has nori worked into the dough giving it a slightly oceany flavor, and the rich crab and white miso it’s topped with is balanced by the lemon squeezed over top. This would be on any restaurant’s greatest hits list, and it definitely needs to be on your table.
The broth in this is perfectly balanced between the seafood stock, tomatillos, and the earthy poblano peppers where you can taste all of it without having to think about it. Add in the perfectly cooked shrimp, clams, squid, and crab, and this is a genuinely excellent cioppino.
This is a very well-dressed salad with just the right amount of vinaigrette, but the sungold tomatoes are really the highlight and we wish it came with more of them.
The snapper is fried whole, served with Thai chilis and basil, and has a lobster pho broth poured around it at the table. You’ll miss the broth a little the next time you eat pho, and the fish is perfectly fried with super crispy skin - just look out for the tiny bones when you’re digging in.
You could eat these slightly charred peas in a dish by themselves and be totally happy, but the rich and slightly fishy tonnato it comes with takes it way over the top. We’d 100% buy jars of this sauce if we could.