Photos by Val Atkinson
I get asked this question quite a lot on my tip please service: "Where can I go for a nice view and seafood?" Personally, I've given up on the "dining with a view thing" being worth it, unless I'm slumming it with a hangover cheeseburger and a Bud at Red's Java Shack, or tucking into a brunch plate from Primavera on a back bench at the Ferry Building on a Saturday morning. Well, there is Greens, especially swell in the summertime because of a grilled peach dish I remember having. But no seafood there. Meow. So if I want seafood, I'm either gonna hit Bar Crudo, Anchor in the Castro, or Swan on Polk. Oh, and Tadich for their pan-fried sand dabs. And now there's Anchor & Hope to happily add to my list. But no view.
So what about the nice couple from Ohio who want a San Francisco seafood experience, and a view, and don't mind throwing down a couple bills for a special occasion? I can't send them to Bar Crudo--the rock and tattoos will make them upset. The line at Swan doesn't need to get any longer. You know, they'll be happy as a clam at ~WATERBAR~. Ditto on the business lunchers and power diners--nothing like closing a deal over $90 worth of chilled shellfish on ice, clink clink. And a couple out for his 55th birthday dinner, I say go for it.
But is this is a place where I'd personally hang out? Mmmmm, that really depends. If my friend was in town on an expense account and insisting on some fancy fins for supper, okay, sure, let's do it up. And now that the patio is open, a lobster roll for lunch on a sunny day would be in the pocket. But is this where I'd go on a Thursday night date? Eh, maybe in 20 years.
Don't get me wrong, the menu here has some definite charmers, like the briny Cove Miyagi and creamy Preston Point oysters ($2.75 each--be careful) literally delivered fresh to the executive chef Parke Ulrich's home up north, and I liked the sea bream sashimi with bright fennel and blood orange ($14). I'm glad Ulrich is committed to using local and sustainable seafood--no Chilean sea bass, swordfish, or monkfish on the menu here.
The menu is as big as the venue. Practically Old and New Testament. I actually got overwhelmed with the choices, and then the descriptions are a bit vague and assumptive, because what I got and what I expected were a bit different on a few occasions. The shellfish soup ($9) was full of concentrated shellfish flavor--and strained, almost like a fumet. I expected some actual shellfish, even a paltry clam, and the salt cod on the crouton wasn't quite enough to swing it. I think servers should explain it won't have nary a shell in it. Managing expectations, you know.
Another example: the local halibut with foie gras ($18) comes resting in an unanticipated bath of lukewarm "lobster essence"--I guess I was expecting a reduction. And why was the dish in "Salads and Such?" I'd separate the Salads and the "and Such" into their own sections entirely--it's confusing to have warm dishes mixed in there. This section has eight choices alone, preceded by nine ceviches and starters. As someone who likes seafood, I really had a hard time focusing and choosing. It was like being in the toothbrush aisle.
But wait, it's time for mains. Will it be crab? Oven roasted, or chilled? Whole fish? And how about halibut, or haddock, or scallop, or char? (All the mains are around $30, unless you're going for mister big-ticket lobster, $58). Ack! I don't know! Can I just have the chef choose for me?
We opted for the turbot ($65), which was big enough for two, and then some. It was presented tableside, whisked back to the kitchen for deboning, and then brought back at the table. By the time we got it on our plates, the fish wasn't very warm, and the un-heated dish didn't help matters. But the fish was quite gorgeous, with a lovely delicacy, quite dreamy with the Champagne poaching liquid poured on top, and a medley of delicious side sauces to try, like an almond and olive tapenade, an aioli with herbes fines, and the smooth salsa verde (our favorite).
We also devoured the side of Delta asparagus, plump tender spears with a slight char that came with the fish (you can take your pick of one side--this would be the dish to order, the wild mushrooms were rather sodden with oil).
Dessert called for something refreshing, in this case the roasted pineapple tart with crème fraîche custard ($9)--perfect crust and tangy flavor, too bad the desiccated pineapple slice wasn't very attractive. (At least it was tasty.) I couldn't quite saddle up for the brownie parfait I saw on numerous tables, but it looked like quite the chocolate fest. We also tried the walnut torte, but I was sated after a few bites, which was just as well.
Service was polite and friendly, sometimes incredibly attentive and informative, and other times completely amiss--I saw it happening at other tables as well. It's a big operation, lots of moving parts.
So, that view. Yup, it's quite spectacular--you can watch the lights shimmer and go down on the water and across the Bay at sunset, so time your table if you can. If you're going, see about requesting one of the primo booths in the main room--I'd be bummed if I got stuck in the side room. And the upstairs also has an amazing room for a private party, with its own terrace.
The bar and lounge area was hopping all night, with the dramatic "caviar" chandelier twinkling above the horseshoe raw bar, tables of folks drinking martinis and eating oysters. You know, once the patio season ends, I'd still come back to sit in the lounge, order some oysters, gravlax, and cevicheâ¦ everyone should at least come see this place and splurge on a bite.
During dinner, I was obsessed with watching the enormous columns of fish tanks--it was fish TV! The one closest to us had this huge eel that would emerge from the bottom and go for a quick spin around the tank every once in a while. (It totally knew what it was doing.) Everyone in the nearby section would start pointing and making comments, ranging from "Duuuuuuuuude!" (the table of business guys) to "Oh my, he's sooooooo ugly!" (the woman on a date). It would be enough for someone walking by to get a complex: "Hey lady, you talkin' to me? Oh, the eel is out. Never mind." The eel really is ugly. It's marvelous.
Kuleto dreams big. I love how committed he is to creating a space and a feeling and an experience, no matter how many millions of ducats it will take. So while I ultimately prefer more intimate dining experiences, and envelope-pushing dishes, I can see why he wanted to create this kind of restaurant for San Francisco--it's meant to be a fun fantasy for people. And it was needed. If anyone was going to do it up, it would be Kuleto. But the space is so big on personality, I think it makes it hard for the restaurant's simpler style of food to measure up. Cue the eel.
399 The Embarcadero
Cross: Folsom St.
San Francisco, CA 94105