Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Swan Oyster Depot - San Francisco, Ca

What does a place have to do to be one of those spots that can do no wrong? Some place that no matter how expensive, or dirty; no matter how crappy the service people still think it's the best place ever.

Those places piss me off.

I'll admit I love Magnolia despite the unavailable service, but at least the food is really freakin' good. There are also all sorts of sketchy taquerias in the Mission or dim sum places in Chinatown that, no matter how many health violations they rack up still draw in crowds. I understand that.

I think I can say, however, that I've been to what must be the pinnacle of such places, Swan Oyster Depot over in Nob Hill.

I like seafood. I like shellfish. I don't even mind casual dining at counters. Here's what I do mind:

1. Filthy filthy counters.
2. Thin, stale chowder.
3. Slow oyster shuckers who rinse the oyster shells, devoiding the oysters of liquor.
4. Nasty oysters.

Maybe it's because it's a tourist trap. Or maybe it's because it was featured on $40 a Day or whatever the fuck. Maybe it's just because people are willing to pay borderline exorbitant sums to have weird old men open oysters for them.

So I enter and I sit down at an impossibly low stool at an impossibly crowded bar. The counter had visible crust. Nice beers on draft. An older gentleman behind the counter asked us if we wanted some chowder while he opened our oysters. We ordered a cup.

It was thin, broken, and to me tasted stale and/or scalded.

Next up, our oysters. An assortment. Now I don't know about you, but if three people order a dozen oysters I'll give them three each of four oysters, not four each of three oysters.

Admittedly, the oysters are probably the cheapest you'll get consistently (except for dollar oyster specials), but the older gentleman served us one bad oyster and two sketchy oysters. Not good odds for a place that prides itself on fresh shellfish.

And now we come to the washing of the shell phenomenon. This is odd. They essentially remove the oyster meat, rinse the shell, and then replace the oyster meat. Apparently this is to eliminate shell. All that this seemed to do was eliminate the oyster juice, as there was still plenty of shell in the meat. Cocktail sauce lacked significant heat and the mignonette suffered from being made from cheap ingredients--rice vinegar and red onion rather than shallots and champagne vinegar.

On to the entrees--two mixed seafood salads and an order of smoked trout. I will admit that the shellfish was well-cooked and plentiful--big prawns and bay shrimp with lump dungeness crab meat on a bed of shredded romaine with louie sauce. Not bad, not bad at all. The smoked trout was pretty good, as were the samples of smoked salmon the weirdos behind the counter gave us complimentary.

So yeah, some of the food was alreight. In fact, other than the chowder and a few of the oysters, the food was good. Was it great? No. Did it require cooking? No. And the three of us spent about $110 for a filling lunch. Not the most expensive lunch I've had, but it's up there. And the more expensive lunches (and many of the cheaper ones) involved more food and in much nicer surroundings.

I understand not wanting to pay for atmosphere--but what are you paying for at Swan then? Inconsistent food?

Just chalk me up as one of those people who just doesn't get it. If Swan was half the price I could see its charm, but as it is, Swan Oyster Depot feels like a tourist trap.

Swan Oyster Depot
1517 Polk St.
San Francisco, Ca 94109

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