Aly's on Main is an upbeat restaurant on a downbeat Redwood City street. Just a block away from the hubbub of Broadway, it sits on a street so subdued it seems almost abandoned, with an automotive parts store, a vacuum cleaner repair shop and a community donation depot a few steps away. Of course, all that will likely change, and soon, as Redwood City continues to reinvent itself in a major way.
A lot already has changed in the three years since Aly's opened. Established by chef Michael Mazaffari and named after his wife Alison, the couple created a place committed to sustainable food practices, using organic ingredients from local sources. Those are pretty much catchphrases these days, as the rest of the restaurant world has adopted the locavore approach. Though the menu changes seasonally, and sometimes weekly, Aly's holds fast to its original concept of using local, organic, sustainable ingredients for its sophisticated take on California cuisine.
While the plate-glass façade seems retro and not especially inviting, all that changes once you cross into the open space inside. Under a sky-high ceiling, distressed brick walls, wood floors and tables, and ambient accent lighting that slowly changes hues make the interior warm and appealing. The bar is especially attractive, with bottles displayed on mirrored shelves and arty-looking barstools illuminated by cobalt-blue lights. The effect is dampened somewhat by two large screens showing different sports channels. Both the scale of the TVs and the content choice feel at odds with the general welcoming vibe the restaurant strives to maintain.
And welcoming really is the effect, from the sincere greeting when you enter to the polished and personal attention of the wait staff, who carefully explain ingredients and inquire about patron preferences before enthusiastically endorsing dishes or cocktails.
The menu emphasizes seasonal, organic and local ingredients in selections that range from classic renditions to downright inspirations. On one visit we started with dates stuffed with warmed Cambozola cheese (not local) and wrapped in prosciutto ($10), a beautiful presentation and a satisfying combination of salty and sweet, creamy and chewy. Another winner was the beet salad ($10), a gorgeous blend of red and yellow beets topped with fennel and unified by a creamy goat cheese dressing, stained pink from the vegetables.
A dinner selection of duck confit ($24) showcased a golden brown leg and thigh served on black rice with a cherry reduction in port and a side of carrot, broccoli and parsnip, one of each.
The hamburger ($16) is a labor of love: Mazaffari grinds locally raised, grass-fed fresh meat in-house, then tops the patty with sharp cheddar and caramelized onions. Mazaffari follows a meticulous system established by Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in England, which involves three separate grinds and salting and rolling the meat before slicing. Served with crisp fries and thick, cumin-scented ketchup, the burger clearly illustrates the difference between organically raised beef and the flavorless ground filling generally found between buns.
Elsewhere on the menu, several dishes use different ingredients to work a similar riff that showcases high-quality proteins, handled skillfully and enhanced with carefully construed supporting flavors. The result is a polished, detail-conscious restaurant that still feels like a comfortable neighborhood joint, albeit one with an organic premise that pervades the owner's fundamental philosophy. All poultry, eggs and meat are organic, seafood is wild or sustainably raised, no modified oils are used in the kitchen and even the furniture is made from reclaimed wood.
Aly's offers a well-edited list of regional wines, by the glass and bottle, as well as beer on tap. It also boasts some enticing custom cocktails, such as the Boulevardier ($12), a bourbon-based Negroni, and the Ring of Fire, composed of tequila, Chartreuse, ginger liqueur and pineapple habanero syrup. Boosted by housemade tinctures and bitters and served in a hefty rocks glass, these cocktails were smooth and splashy, though a tad skimpy for the price.
The dessert menu featured bread pudding ($9) -- three dense slices topped with candied kumquats and dollops of whipped cream. While lovely to look at, the dessert was a disappointment, with no real flavor other than the tang of the citrus. Our server responded with supreme professionalism and immediately took the order off our bill.
Mazaffari has a long background in the restaurant business, with stints at Chez Panisse and Stars before a sidetrack into the engineering world. Now he's back in the kitchen, and taking the concept of farm-to-table very seriously.
There are some aspects that could be refined -- our fabulous server was nowhere to be found when it was time to pay the tab, the sidewalk façade is simply too sterile and the banquettes show a bit too much wear and tear. But those are quibbles. What really matters is that a restaurant's offerings are well made and the dishes are well balanced and well crafted, whether the ingredients are locally sourced, organic, sustainable or not. With a few caveats, Aly's does just that, and quite well.
Aly's on Main
911 Main St., Redwood City
Hours: Lunch, Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-9:30 p.m. and Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Parking: Street and nearby public lots
Alcohol: Full bar
Happy Hour: Wednesday-Friday, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Low
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent