Mom's 65th at Angler – San Francisco, CA
Since Josh Skenes stepped away from the kitchen at Saison, his new flagship project is the mini-chain of Angler restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with a long-awaited opening in Seattle in the future. Of course, you can always "request an invitation" to stay at his ranch somewhere in the islands of Puget Sound and pay a breathtaking amount of simoleons to have Skenes lead you on hunting trips and prepare private dinner parties, but for mere mortals, Angler is the best way to get a peek at his work and culinary ethos.
For those who didn't endure my previous review of Angler, I'll give you a brief rundown of Skenes' M.O.––his is an ethos of maximizing an ingredient's potential and doing little to it in the kitchen. A mercurial and controversial figure who is a combo chef and hunter, fisherman, and forager, he's spent his life learning exactly what the best animal looks like, the ideal time and technique for slaughtering and harvesting it, and how to cook it to taste most like itself as possible. Almost always, this involves wood fire cooking, which Skenes views as the only untainted method most rooted in the way we cooked before gas and electric heat. The accompaniments to a dish are often sparse, letting the main event shine through.
Angler has a shared plates design to its menu, but I was happy to also see they had a "let us cook for you" offering (only available to certain high-end Chase cardholders, like my sister, however*). I find these menus are often the most economical for experiencing a large cross-section of a restaurant's offerings, so I selected Angler as the celebratory venue for Mom's 65th birthday dinner with the goal of leaving the decisions to the kitchen.
Situated right on the Embarcadero with a view of the Bay Bridge, Angler's space is beautifully absurd. The main dining room is flanked with dozens of fiberglass fish replicas, and the open fire kitchen is fully viewable with dried plants overhanging the counters. In the corner are live tanks of the very same seafood you'll likely be eating, and off to the right is a second room with wood paneling and taxidermy-ed game. More absurd is the soundtrack, which teems with cheesy 1980s hits from bands like Wham!
I was surprised to see Angler relatively empty on a weekend, but it meant we got our choice of plum tables and selected one by the window overlooking the Bay. Mom wanted to start with cocktails––almost all of Angler's cocktails are three ingredients or less, and my take on a gin martini was topped with an "olive" consisting of a small pool of olive oil and a dot of Calabrian chili oil to resemble the pimento that might be inside a stuffed olive. A tasty but not transcendent tipple. Mom settled on a tequila- and citrus-based cocktail with a chili rim, which she happily enjoyed.
We popped a special bottle of 2020 Littorai Heintz Vineyard chardonnay, a bottle for which I'd trekked to Littorai and bought especially for mom's birthday dinner. The Charles Heintz Vineyard is considered the "grand cru" site for chardonnay in the Sonoma Coast AVA, and Ted Lemon's wines are utter poetry. The sommelier was most impressed by my selection!
You must get crudo at Angler, and the kitchen sent us first an amberjack crudo topped with nasturtium leaves and surrounded by a lovely sauce of passionfruit. Just minutes later one of Angler's classic raw dishes was presented––bluefin tuna tartare complemented by an aromatic gelée of tomato water and zesty shiso leaf, served with a rice cracker dusted with dehydrated "sea vegetables." Both were refreshing and delightful.
Angler is the only restaurant I've patronized where you can dine on antelope, a favorite of Chef Skenes. Their antelope tartare is divine, topped with a smoked egg yolk and accompanied by butter lettuce cups as a vehicle. A classic, unique dish that has been on the menu since day one and will always be on my list when I visit. Alongside, Angler's legendary Parker House rolls magically absorbed smears of house-cultured seaweed butter.
I'd seen a few other diners briefly decorated with bibs, some splattered with bright red dribbles, as we enjoyed the early courses, and I wondered (jokingly) if perhaps Chef Skenes had gone so far as to teach his diners how to slaughter something! When our bibs were brought, they were accompanied by what were clearly hunting knives, adding to my anxiety. Turns out the dish in question was a salad made from a whole head of radicchio dressed in a bright-red radicchio "X.O. sauce" that indeed splattered wildly when cut with the hunting knives. A whimsical, if somewhat perverse, salad course.
The best scallop I've ever had is still at Angler. They pluck them live from the tank, grill them perfectly and serve them in their shell with Meyer lemon beurre blanc. Three of them were too few for the three of us––we could have had three each! So, too, were there three sea snails served in-shell brought shortly after, swimming in a creamy sauce the constitution of which escapes me at this writing. A shellfish smorgasbord.
We were each down to our respective last glasses of Littorai chardonnay, so we popped a bottle of 2019 Red Car pinot noir from the Heaven and Earth Vineyard in the Freestone/Occidental area. Red Car makes fantastic wines, and is one of the few wineries that will combine a wine club discount with my industry discount, so snagging a bottle of this wonderful pinot for the fam was an easy call.
The main fish course was a glorious butterflied and grilled turbot with beurre blanc and grilled broccolini, with crispy grilled skin that is the stuff of dreams. Another fish dish surprised us next, this time sea bass with yet more creamy sauce dotted with Calabrian chili oil and fresh basil. The side was grilled artichoke hearts seasoned with swarnadwipa, a type of lemongrass and coconut curry powder. Things were starting to get a bit overwhelming, and our bellies were sending "STOP!" signals to our brains.
And yet, here was yet more food––an entire pastured chicken roasted in the wood oven, with stunning crispy skin and glistening, tender meat. I dove in for a thigh, of course, but collectively we didn't even conquer a third of the bird. What's more, they brought us some sides, and two of my favorite things they make––a thinly sliced whole potato in a sauce of local aged cheese and a head of hen of the woods mushrooms grilled and served in an ever-changing sauce of fermented vegetables that they add to every day. I certainly couldn't resist those, even if I had to loosen my belt by a hole. And check out the cheeky inclusion of the chicken feet, which we promptly turned into Michelangelo mimickry.
Finally, dessert, but in predictable fashion given the volume of food produced to this point, they brought us all three of the dessert choices on the menu. The "chocolate bar" cake was garnished with a little candle for mom's birthday, and a half a coconut shell housed some luscious coconut sorbet. Alongside was Josh Skenes' signature dessert––an ice cream sundae.
We may have had to roll ourselves out of the restaurant like the blueberry girl in Willy Wonka, but I was quite pleased with this meal. While they were entirely too generous with the food and some things, like the creamy sauces, felt redundant, each dish was fantastic, and we got way more than a bang for our buck with the "Let us cook for you" option. Moreover, the wines I brought paired perfectly, and Angler didn't charge us a dime for corkage. Very classy of them.
Most important, Mama was very happy. <3
* Mini-rant: This business of only making reservations available to holders of certain premium credit cards is spreading, and it's appalling. As I've written about many times, we should be striving to make food, particularly principled fine dining, more accessible and not less, and these partnerships with credit cards are just supercharging the exclusivity of good food. This trend, coupled with the absurd increase in prices we've been seeing in fine dining of late, manifests a dystopian dining future where an even more select few are "worthy" of experiencing these wonderful establishments.
I'm sure I'll post a longer rant later. :)