- 132 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA
- 4 January, 2019
Well folks, I have taken my first step on my "Grand Pacific" trip, and arrived in San Francisco late yesterday evening. I had hoped to make my first blog post of the trip about my maiden Boeing 787 Dreamliner voyage, something that I had been excited about for months (and the exact reason WHY I took these particular flights, at these particular times, on this particular day), but to my woeful (but silly) disappointment, my Dreamliner encountered a mechanical issue, and was switched out last minute for a 777-200, which is still a great aircraft, but not nearly as cutting-edge or exciting, and by no means new to me.
Disappointed by the lack of Dreamliner and the ghastly ravioli I was served aboard the new flight to SFO (four cheese ravioli and beets? Really United?), I decided to select a spot to unwind and have a brief, light dinner and nightcap. Fortunately, one place that had been on my list when researching new spots to visit on this trip was open until 11 PM, so I took a quick Lyft to downtown San Francisco at the base of the Bay Bridge to Angler, the new restaurant (opened in September) from chef and restauranteur Joshua Skenes.
Skenes came roaring into the San Francisco dining scene when he opened Saison in 2009, which swiftly gained serious acclaim as among the nation's best restaurants, earning three Michelin stars within its first couple years of operation. The concept of Saison reflects Skenes' upbringing and philosophy toward food, which can be best condensed as "what does this ingredient taste like and how do I make it taste the most like that?" His cooking features the primary ingredient to its essence, with little embellishment or fudging, to bring out the flavor of that ingredient to its fullest and most robust manifestation. And, naturally, he finds the level best ingredients in the world in order to manifest this philosophy in his cooking. He is known for contracting with local fishermen, farmers, and hunters for their best ingredients, and he himself is no stranger to fishing, hunting, and foraging.
Saison was infamous for being probably the most expensive restaurant in San Francisco and possibly one of the most expensive in the country. These days, since Skenes has passed off the helm at Saison, it is less eye-popping, but still certainly an indulgence. My dinner at Saison back in 2016, while magnificent, sometimes mystified me, but that's probably because I just didn't get what Skenes was all about. Example: one of the courses I was served at Saison was just titled "pumpkin hung over the fire for a few days" and also had some other simple preparations of the vegetable. And that is quite literally what I was served. It was incredibly delicious, but in my ignorance, it didn't quite gel with what I thought a restaurant of this caliber (and price tag) was "supposed" to be. Now that I know what Skenes is all about, I look back on that meal and everything makes sense.
Angler, a seafood-focused place (duh), has the same philosophy––the purest and most un-fussed manifestations of an ingredient's flavor (and at much lower prices than the paycheck-devouring Saison!). All cooking in the kitchen is done over an open-fire hearth (the same as Saison, and a hallmark of Skenes' philosophy) and all of the seafood (and a few meat) dishes that are cooked are only cooked over this fire, with little embellishment in the plating. Esquire recently named this the best new restaurant in the country, and said "Go while you're still alive," quite a command. Well, there I was. Much of the menu is served family-style, which I knew in advance, but I was able to find several smaller dishes that combined for a very nice late-night meal for one.
The space is polished and unpretentious, but definitely in-your-face and almost crass, with things like plaster fish on the walls. Skenes has deployed hallmarks of 80s music for the soundtrack (think "Take me on" and "Wake me up before you go go") and it sets the stage for a truly bizarre and over-the-top yet very classy and polished atmosphere. It shouldn't work, but it works perfectly. I must say, it was unlike any place I've ever dined. I didn't get a chance to check out the "Game Room" (game as in dead animals, not foosball) next door, but suffice it to say it takes the concept of the sea-themed dining room to the land, with plenty of taxidermy and wood paneling. Just ridiculous and delightful.
The hallmark, though, is the view. Right on San Francisco's waterfront road, the Embarcadero, you have a panoramic view of the Bay Bridge and the brilliant new LED light displays they've added in the last couple of years.
The cocktail program also emphasizes simplicity, and each cocktail only has three ingredients. I started with a "King Kong," which had bourbon, banana (I assume a liqueur of some kind), and the Brazilian spirit cachaça. It was absolutely delicious; full and spirit-forward, but smooth and not overwhelming, and surprisingly went rather well with the raw dishes I enjoyed at the beginning.
I was presented with a little display of utensils and accompaniments to use throughout my meal, including house hot sauce, whole Calabrian chilis (which I wasn't sure how to deploy with the provided wooden spoon), and the most adorable salt shaker I have ever seen (look at that octopus!)
Turns out I was in the mood for mollusks, because three of the four dishes I ordered were shellfish. The first thing served was a raw live Maine diver scallop. This is the freshest and most beautiful scallop you can imagine––the slices were served very simply with Meyer lemon and olive oil, and topped with a bit of salt. Magnificent.
Followed with one of each of their oyster selections that night: a Pacific Gold from the CA Central Coast, which is a uniquely hardy oyster that has a deep cup and a full body from the hardship and tumbling it endures from the elements, with a savory mouthfeel and slight melon-like sweetness; a Shigoku from the Shamish Bay in Washington, another hardy, deep-cupped mollusk, which had a sweetness I would associate with Pacific Northwest oysters and a nice lingering brine; and a Miyagi, a widely-grown oyster, this one also from WA state, with a shallow shell and the accompanying brine, a transparent texture and a slight nutty flavor. Enjoyed these with a house vinegar, an amber chicory cocktail sauce (SO GOOD), and a slice of Meyer lemon, which was my favorite thing to add to the beautiful bivalves.
With my next two courses, I consulted with one of the people attending to me and she recommended at 2016 Melville Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills (north of Santa Barbara, CA), which happens to be my favorite California wine region. The area gets a lovely cooling fog from the ocean at night as a reprieve from the Southern California sun, cooling the grapes and producing elegant, silky wines. I love pinot noir from this region, and Melville's pinots are always rockstar wines, but I really enjoyed the extra heft and bolder fruit of this syrah, which balanced the heavier grape with the elegance of a pinot. Really gorgeous.
I am a huge fan of the wine glasses that Skenes uses in his restaurants––they are modern and light as a feather, and the stem is alarmingly thin, yet they are tough as nails. Same ones as Saison. So pretty!
My "main" course consisted of a head of hen of the woods mushrooms cooked over the fire and served with a sauce of unnamed cured vegetables, and some "little abalones" from Monterrey Bay that were, of course, cooked over the fire and served in a small amount of orange, black pepper, and maple sauce. The mushrooms had a crispy, charred top, and their smoky umami worked beautifully with the tangy and surprisingly spicy (almost too spicy!) sauce. The abalones were INCREDIBLE––the most tender abalone I have ever had, with a nice smoke and richness from the pork fat in the accompanying sauce, lending heft to the mollusk that worked very well with the syrah.
While I was an immense fan of the "ice cream sundae" dessert I enjoyed at Saison that seems to have been replicated and offered at Angler, my fatigue had caught up to me, and I found my way back to the hotel to crash within minutes (gotta love those Marriott beds!). Slept beautifully and have awoken to a rainy and windy city, but one with much to offer, including a visit to the century-old temple of fresh seafood, Swan Oyster Depot, the Museum of Modern Art, and a dinner at Mourad with some drinks to follow. And possibly some little late night snacks from a local (ahem) "natural" dispensary. God, I love California.