"Working with my hands was always inevitable because of how my family was," says Rodney Wages. Growing up in Leavenworth, Kansas, the son of a carpenter and a mechanic, the question of his career path was simply a matter of finding the right trade.
He found it early, at age 15, when a friend offered him a dishwashing job at a mom-and-pop restaurant. Wages quickly moved up the ranks, from plongeur to the salad station to cooking on the line. At 17, he left for Minneapolis, where he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, and before graduating, secured an internship at The French Laundry.
Working for Thomas Keller was a formative experience. "I think a lot of the fundamental work ethic that I got from The French Laundry—having the go-get-it attitude no matter what happens—helped me get where I am today. The French Laundry was constantly evolving, constantly changing. It kept everybody on their toes, and made them stronger."
It was also a good place to make connections, notably with Corey Lee, who hired Wages as chef de partie when he opened Benu in San Francisco. From Benu, Wages moved on to chef de cuisine positions at Saison and Atelier Crenn, and in the summer of 2016, he left the latter to start his own venture, a pop-up called RTB Fillmore. One and a half years later, on April 10, Wages and his business partner, Matthew Mako—who had also worked previously at Benu and Saison—opened Avery, its name an homage to the American painter, Milton Avery.
The atmosphere in the intimate two-level space is a sophisticated kind of cool, a confident juxtaposition of crisp, modern furniture and abstract strokes of color on Venetian plaster walls by the artist Victor Reyes. The service is brisk and efficient, with little fuss, and little of the elaborate choreography you encounter at some of Wages' earlier environs. This is by intent. "I hope it puts people in a more comfortable place," said Wages, "and makes them feel less uptight."
The business of being uptight never crossed my mind, or that of my friend, as we drank our respective bowls of warm broth made from toasted grains and finished with burnt onions, whose aroma conjured an olfactory hologram of a classic soupe a l'oignon. Quickly emptied, the bowls of broth were followed by generous heaps of jamon Iberico mounded on top of little fingers of turnip cake (a traditional Chinese New Year dish) made from rice, turnip, sesame, and scallion. The ham was somewhat sweet with a vague, far-off funk, and a slightly waxy butteriness; the turnip cake, meanwhile, conjured fond memories of a dish of white polenta I'd enjoyed just a few weeks prior at the Venetian restaurant Corte Sconta.
Two long golden spoons appeared, their concavities stuffed with big, gleaming, orangey-red trout roe that had been brined in dashi (a broth seasoned with dried kelp and bonito flakes) and gently smoked. The roe, whose membranes were excitingly firm, popped like incredibly juicy, smoky-salty berries. From fish eggs to fish, we moved on to a delectable dish of aji (Japanese horse mackerel), whose fatty richness was perfectly complemented by a tangy citrus jelly.
As the next course approached, I immediately thought gougeres. They were in fact æbleskiver, a kind of spherical Danish pastry. Filled with garlic puree and richly seasoned grilled broccoli and topped with garlic mayonnaise, fried shrimp and charred scallions, each was a crispy puff of deliciousness.
Then, in little bowls, lightly steamed oysters in a broth infused with dried fish, raw garlic, shallots and olive oil. The oysters were criminally creamy, their flavor magically savory.
The drink pairing, which was several glasses in by this point, was similarly eye-opening. Although the night had started out with Champagne (Guy de Forez—very nice), sake rather than wine was the name of the game. This is partly because of the East Asian influence in Wages' cooking, and partly because of the influence of Avery's sommelier, Daniel Bromberg, whose deep knowledge of the beverage is informed, among other things, by having lived at a sake brewery in Japan. The standouts of the night were a Junmai (a particular grade of sake) from Matsunoi, which called to mind sugar maple sap with a hint of salt; and an unpasteurized and undiluted Junmai Ginjo from Takenotsuyu, whose fragrance and slightly feral flavors of apple, pear, and honey were as compellingly complex as those of any great wine.
There were many other surprises that evening, some of which were so fun and sui generis that one should experience them without any preconception. Although it's not revealing too much to say that caviar, for one, and sea buckthorn, for another, were involved. // Avery, 1552 Fillmore St. (Fillmore), averysf.com