Saturday, April 29, 2006

Flailing Fish

First of all, I want to apologize for my extreme tardiness on a new post. Ignoring a blog you created is as addictive as heroin, though I doubt you'll see studies on it anytime soon. On to some content...

For a town that's known for its seafood, San Francisco has a very surprising lack of good fish. Be it your classic Fisherman's Wharf-style seafood, your high-end seafood, or even sushi, San Francisco seafood specialists usually disappoint. Sometimes it's the fish itself that's not the best it could be, and sometimes it's the preparation. Since seafood specialists in San Francisco come in different shapes and sizes, I'll separate them out.

The Wharf: Let's leave "seafood" restaurants like A. Sabella's or Scoma's out of the equation. These venerable tourist traps don't just disappoint - they make you sick and rob you blind. I do have a soft spot of Alioto's for some reason, but I'd never in my right mind send anyone that I actually liked there. Generally, I'm not even sure that it's fish that these restaurants serve. Added bonus of not going there - you don't have to deal with the creepy bush guy.

The High-High-End: I put Aqua and Farallon into the high-high end, and somehow no one has come in to replace them. They're both restaurants that I consider has-beens. They were places you desperately wanted to get into around 1999-2000, they were still considered very good around 2002-2003, but in 2006 my impression is that the real kitchen talent has all moved on elsewhere and the decor has never been updated. Even Michael Mina himself moved on from Aqua. But in fairness, I've never eaten more than appetizers there, so take my impressions on Aqua with a grain of sea salt.

The High-End: Here's another area where I'm confused as to why there aren't more players in this space. There's really just Plouf, Catch, Hayes Street Grill, Pesce and Yabbies. Pesce and Yabbies are located right next to each other on Polk St. Both are very servicable options, but won't wow you. That said, on Thursday nights Yabbie's has a great special that's essentially a big basket for two filled with steamed shellfish - a traditional New England lobster boil I believe it's called. Hayes Street Grill is downright gross. I've never been to Catch but have heard unimpressive word-of-mouth reviews. Plouf is a very cool place sitting outside in the alley on a warm night, but the fish itself is less than spectacular. Again, there aren't bad options here, but nothing is going to blow you away considering these are the best options that a so-called seafood town has to offer.

The Old Timers: Tadich Grill and Sam's Grill and Seafood Restaurant are a lot of fun to do every once in a while. Tadich is great fun to go and sit at the bar for lunch, grab a cup of clam chowder and a crab louie salad. Both transport you to another time of distinction and formality for San Francisco. The problem with these places is (again) for a place that specializes in seafood, neither their fish nor especially their presentation is very good. At both places, I shy away from any dishes that need too much preparation at all. If you get anything sauteed or fried, your body will punish you for days as if you ate fast food. Fish, in general, is wonderful because the freshness and taste speak for itself. Hiding it in butter and oil ruins it. In fact, that's the theory behind...

Sushi: Granted, there's some good sushi in San Francisco (this deserves a more elaborate post of its own), but you'll always pay just a bit more than it's worth. For instance, I think Blowfish and Sushi Groove have great sushi. The fish is fresh, and the preparation is innovative and interesting. I'm just not comfortable paying $150 per cou
ple for that meal. Similarly, there are about 75 different sushi restaurants on Lombard Street offering the same pedestrian selection of rolls and not one of them providing value. I like sushi enough to where I'll still go to all these places, but I never leave with a great feeling.

A couple other sushi notes... the so-called no-name sushi on Church St near 15th that people talk about... don't go there - it's for people who are without taste glands and immune to bacteria... I hear that Sushi Ran in Sausalito is the best sushi in the Bay Area, but I've never been... my best advice for go-to sushi places are Wasabi and Ginger on Van Ness (free valet parking and zero ambiance) and Tokyo Go Go in the Mission.

I think San Francisco is a great restaurant city, but we don't hold a candle to New York and LA when it comes to sushi.

The Specialists: Two places that offer incredible shellfish are Swan Oyster Depot (right) and Hog Island Oyster Company (in the Ferry Building). They both do what little they do very, very well. Lunch at the counter at Swan is one of my all-time favorite treats. Hog Island has one of the coolest oyster and wine happy hour specials I've encountered. Neither prepare any fish in traditional restaurant ways, so it's hard to match them up against others, but they hold their own place of excellence.

The Recommendation: Sushi aside, my recommendation if you want a great piece of fish that's very well-prepared is to not go to a seafood restaurant at all. The best fish I've had in San Francisco has been at places like Boulevard, Range, Antica Trattoria, and Sociale. Think about it - the best fish mongers in the Bay Area don't sell exclusively to seafood-specialty restaurants. Other restaurants have fish just as good if not better, and they likely have more talented chefs. Cooking fish isn't some rare specialty like raw foodism - these folks know how to do it.

Often when people come to town, they say they want to go out for seafood, and resist when I want to take them to a non-seafood restaurant for their fish. I feel strongly it's the right thing to do.