Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Response: An HFF Manifesto

Apparently unbeknownst to me there are other people reading this blog. This is a good thing. It's also made my very aware that these random strangers might not "get" what's going on here.

Steven is an attentive reader who took umbrage to my Oliveto write-up.

I will now respond. Italics represent the content of Steven's comment.

"Oh right, Alice Waters. I hear she's an uncut eight inches." In the face of such wit, it's tempting to respond with another ad hominem attack.

This is sort of a weird use of the term ad hominem. The size of Alice Waters' penis and its circumcisional status is irrelevant to her abilities as a chef. And while it might have mattered to Bertolli when he was blowing her, it also has no relevance on his abilities as a chef. I don't believe I was making that assertion. I'm sure there are many fine chefs who have large uncircumcised genitalia.

However, it can't be denied that working under Waters earlier in his career gave Bertolli an immeasurable amount of fame and exposure and aided greatly in his ability to open his own successful restaurant.

In a post in which I am speculating (rightly or wrongly) that perhaps Bertolli's restaurant doesn't deserve all of its accolades, I think that suggesting a (probably) figurative submissive sexual relationship with Alice Waters is a fair one to throw out there.

Flippant and tasteless, perhaps. Ad hominem? Hardly.

Besides, if you read this blog you know my love-hate relationship with California Cuisine and its sacred cows.

Lastly, if you have photos DISPROVING the rumored size of Ms. Waters' penis, please show them to me and I'll promptly remove that comment.

You're an idiot.

Come on, you can do better than that. At least criticize my sexual prowess or something. There's a whole lexicon of insults out there.

But I think I can do better.

We'll later see that this was an overly optimistic statement.

Unlike you ("I should probably give Oliveto a second chance") I can judge Oliveto on the basis of more than one visit. I've had a few bad meals there. Many good ones. And a few excellent ones. I've eaten at enough restaurants to know that it deserves the praise it gets.

Notice here where he implies that I haven't eaten at enough restaurants. Interesting. You obviously like Oliveto. A lot of people do. That's not a bad thing. There was a lot to like about that place. My goal is to get people to question why that is. Which I succeeded in getting you to do and you have defended it competently. I don't think it deserves the praise it gets. But I'm not saying that I know one way or the other. How do you know what anything does or does not deserve?

It balances excellent cuisine with appropriate prices. It's impressive and imaginative without being pretentious and exclusive.

I thought the prices were inappropriate and the food unimaginative. I guess we'll agree to disagree here.

To be fair, Oliveto might not be the best fish restaurant in the Bay Area. But that's my point. It's not a fish restaurant. From your description (more than 50% of your comments are positive) it sounds like most of the food was at least OK.

Actually I would say that more than half of my food was good. That's my whole point though. Excellent ingredients competently prepared should be the baseline for any restaurant of Oliveto's stature. I want to see where restaurants push beyond that. I don't care if you aren't a "fish restaurant." You're doing a seafood dinner and I'm going to judge that seafood dinner by the same standards that I'll judge your meat. Same standard as movies, plays, art galleries, blogs, etc. If you're putting something out there for public consumption it's going to be judged by people who don't give a fuck if you are or are not a seafood restaurant. Because I can play the trombone doesn't mean I can play the saxophone and I would fully expect to be torn a new asshole by critics if I gave a saxophone recital and sucked.

I actually can play the saxophone, but that's neither here nor there.

And that's despite the fact that Oliveto is a meat restaurant. You know that, right?

No? Really! That's amazing. I wondered why Bertolli ceased working the kitchen to open his own charcuterie and sausage-making business. Running a meat-focused restaurant makes a lot of sense...

Of course I know that you shrill, condescending, impotent douche!

That is an example of ad hominem. The fact that you're an impotent douche has no relevance to your abilities to criticize me.

They are one of the world's greatest meat restaurants.

This would perhaps be an overstatement. And it's an overstatement that calls into question your own objectivity.

And that's another principle of this blog. You can't pretend to be objective. I'm calling it like I see it (completely colored by my tastes, mood, and opinion) based on that visit. If I go back and something's changed, I'll comment on it again (I've changed my tune on Wood Tavern and Maverick, for instance). I have my tastes, I'll admit. Italian is one of least favorite of the major cuisines. And I think that California Cuisine is a viable but creatively bankrupt institution. That's clear to anyone who reads this blog. So the deck was already stacked against Oliveto. But I don't see anything wrong with that.

But to say with a straight face that Oliveto (or any restaurant) is one of the world's greatest in any category is showing your hand a little too early, I think.

So, again, to spew up so much vitriol based on one unrepresentative experience is more than unfair, it's rude.

I really don't think I spewed that much vitriol. Other than my profane, swaggering bookends, I think most of my comments were well reasoned and substantiated.

The point is, I'm exaggerating to make a point. The women at my table didn't actually eat everything on the plates (though they ate more than their fair share). And they probably weren't as attractive as I might've made them out to be. Oh well. Does what I write have to be factually accurate for it to be true? I'd say no.

Besides, I can attack Oliveto more strongly than I might other restaurants. Oliveto is a successful institution that is immune to any potshots a little opinionated blogger might throw at it. That's the style of this blog. That's the point. Language that one might consider "rude" (who says we have to be nice? who made that rule?) forced you to have both an intellectual reaction to the content of the post and a visceral reaction to how that content was expressed. It forced you to jump to the defense of something you love with a zeal and indignation you wouldn't've had if you'd read a more "polite" review.

You claim that "David Bowie, Martin Scorsese, and Dr. Dre are it for decades-long enduring creative thinking." It's hard to continue reading your review after that.

It's really hard to take your criticism seriously if you thought I was being serious.

I mean, have you heard of Miles Davis? Prokofiev? Graham Greene?

No I haven't. Who are they? Are they as awesome as Dr. Dre? I hope so. Dr. Dre is pretty awesome though.

In the (paraphrased) words of Homer Simpson: If they're so great, how come they're dead?

Your presumptiveness is interesting. Would you respond in a similar way if I told you I had a master's degree and season tickets to the symphony? I would hope not, because that's not relevant to the topics I discuss here.

And I think that Paul Bertolli continues to be pretty creative. I've had stuff at Oliveto that I've never had anywhere else, cooked with consummate skill. Can you ask for much more?

I can because I haven't had that yet. But hopefully I will. I'll make it back to Oliveto sometime soon, I'm sure.

Oh, this isn't much fun. Let's go ad hominem again:

"The bisque tasted like lobster, cream, and cognac. Which I guess makes it good if you like those things." Idiot.

I'm not sure what makes that statement idiotic. I don't like lobster all that much. It's not that I think it's bad, it's just not my thing. I imagine someone who likes lobster more than I would like the bisque much more than I would. But why didn't you make a note of my point that the two servings of the bisque, served at the exact same time tasted markedly different?

I could tell you that my assessment was corroborated by a professional chef friend of mine who was dining with me. But that shouldn't matter, right?

"I was personally offended by the cioppino." Pretentious boob.

I have every right to be offended. I don't have the right to expect anybody to care.

Though you're using ad hominem correctly now. Kinda. That's pretty cool.

To be honest, I enjoyed reading your review. I think you write reasonably well. But I think you want to show off more than you want to be thoughtful. I suggest you visit a restaurant at least twice before reviewing it. And tone down the wild generalizations and pronouncements. They're just silly.

I don't think I could get a greater compliment than that right there. Thank you.

Of course I want to show off. That's what I hope makes this interesting and different. If I toned stuff down I wouldn't been able to engage in such a great virtual dialogue with you, would I? I think I'm being a whole lot more thoughtful than you give me credit for. I imagine you equate "rude" language with "not thoughtful-ness" like most people of a certain demographic do. Not to make presumptions or anything. I'm serious. Reread the review.

Edward R. Murrow is an infinitely better journalist than Hunter S. Thompson, but Thompson's a helluva lot more interesting to read. And there's a lot more truth in some of Thompson's rants and madness than in Murrow's reporting. Both men did important work. Both are admirable.

With the exception of Wood Tavern, I haven't been to a single restaurant before it's been reviewed in all the local media. I'm not really reviewing a restaurant for the same purpose or with the same intent as those reviewers. I'm don't even consider what I'm doing to be reviewing a restaurant. I'm writing an essay about my experience. If it means that someone who reads what I've written decides not to go to a restaurant, so be it. But it's not my intention to tell people what to do or where to go. Knowing my tastes and opinions, people can take away what they will from what I write.

And that's a beautiful thing.

So there you have it, Steven. I hope that cleared things up for you and for other casual readers. I appreciate your kind words and am glad you're enjoying what I'm doing.

But I'm not going to tone things down or stop being silly. Because that wouldn't be any fun at all. I take what I do very seriously, but that's not to say I'm very serious about what I do.

Here's to ruffling more feathers.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

HFF in the Kitchen: No Teeth

I got wisdom teeth out last week. The procedure wasn't so bad and the significant pain went away after about 48 hours.

But the soreness and tenderness won't go away!

It actually has now (somewhat), but it didn't for a while. This makes for better writing anyway.

So what have I been eating?

Smoothies. Lots and lots of smoothies. My blender's been going pretty much nonstop. The problem with smoothies (and most soft foods) is that there is a lot of sugar.

I don't object to sugar, but I can only take so much. Making smoothies with whole fruit, silken tofu, and a splash of not inordinately sweetened soymilk made things work pretty well.

TastyBite Indian food from Trader Joe's. I'd forgotten that India is the mother of cooked-to-death cuisine. Makes it easier to eat when your lips fall off from leprosy. Point is, these boil-in-the-bag dishes are pretty freakin' great, rich and spicy and $2-$4 a pop.

Cottage cheese. Sure the curds get into the stinking gum holes, but it's a cheap low-fat source of protein. But not has tasty as....

Yogurt! Yes! Yogurt! Milk that's been partially digested by bacteria is easy to eat and delicious! And really, if you've never had real full-fat cream top yogurt you're missing out. It's like sour heaven as it slips down you're throat.

Fruit. But not all fruit. Berries with tiny seeds are no good. Soft stonefruit and melon have been pretty tasty. Bananas are annoying (except when pureed into smoothies!)

Refried beans have been my fiber-rich savior!

Soup is trickier than you think. Most soups aren't simple purees. And the purees from Trader Joe's are middling. The Butternut-Apple soup is as odd as it sounds. Not bad, just odd. Chunkier soups, particularly homemade ones with al dente vegetables, cause serious soreness and trauma. I still need vicodin by the end of the day.

Some other suprisingly difficult foods: mac and cheese (sticks to the wound sites), broccoli (not cooked to mush), prawns (hard to eat with the front teeth), and smoothies from Coldstone (just too goddamn thick).

Here's what's coming up for HFF: Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, Boulevard, and more adventures in wine country.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Oliveto Oceanic Dinners 2007 - Oakland, Ca

Complacency's a bitch. When the dollars keep coming and you can keep yay up your nose and Thai hookers on your junk, what's the incentive to even maintain your standards, let alone push the boundaries of your creative thought? You have a nice restaurant, people keep coming, and you can charge whatever the fuck you want for whatever you want to serve--even if it means that two bowls of the exact same soup served at the exact same time taste completely different. Why would you pay attention to such a detail? You have sex slaves to traffic!

History is riddled with brilliant creative thinkers who couldn't maintain for very long. Hemingway blew his load with his first four novels. J.D. Sallinger barely wrote a second one. Coppola hasn't made a good movie since 1980.

Basically David Bowie, Martin Scorsese, and Dr. Dre are it for decades-long enduring creative thinking.

And enduring creative thinking is definitely not present in California Cuisine. It all began thirty years ago when someone came up with the brilliant idea that, "Hey, seasonal ingredients that aren't shipped from halfway around and are cooked properly are tasty."

Fucking genius right there. Brilliant. Took some real critical thinking to come up with that one.

The problem? While other parts of the country (and even the Bay Area) have been moving forward with that idea--combining freshness and seasonality with a rewnewed sense of innovation in preparation and presentation--the Berkeley/Oakland greater Gourmet Ghetto is still stuck in 1979.

But when the same wealthy ex-hippies keep clamoring to spend their ill-gotten gains at your restaurants at exorbitant prices, why would you need to offer an exciting product or anything new? What's the incentive (besides your integrity, of course)?

What will you do when those hippies die? What happens?

It's simple. You stop being relevant because you've surrendered your self-respect for complacency and a comfortable income. That's the upper middle-class American way.

What does this have to do with Oliveto? Everything.

I went with a large group which afforded me the benefit of being able to try things I wouldn't necessarily have ordered and the disadvantage of not getting things that I would've ordered.

I'll admit that Oliveto is pretty. Very pretty. Big dark dining room. Scene-y downstairs cafe. Nice bars. Sharp place-settings. Casually elegant servers. It's a pretty place.

First round was the "Grande Aioli" fish, shellfish, and vegetable platter and the platter of salted, marinated, and smoked fish.

The fish platter was remarkable in its ability to make king salmon, skate, tombo, swordfish, sea scallops, and bluefish all taste pretty much the same. The smoked sea scallops tasted like inexpensive canned smoked oysters. The marinated skate was the highlight inasmuch as it actually tasted like something other than salt and smoke.

Hard to judge the Grand Aioli since the chicks at the other end of the table had pretty much picked it clean. The crayfish I had was nicely cooked and the veggies were pretty fucking tasty. The aioli was sharp and garlicky almost to the point of oppressiveness.

Next up, crostoni topped with monkfish liver pate and served with arugula. Here the monkfish lacked the soft creamy texture and almost vegetal flavor of ankimo-style preparations. The monkfish was basically pureed, salted, and mixed with oil to the point of tasting nothing at all like monkfish. Yay! The arugula was good but on the bitter side, even for arugula.

The fritto misto of softshell, anchovies, salt cod, and grass shrimp was pretty damn good though once again picked through by the attractive but voracious women at the other end of the table leaving behind little more than a smattering of tasty fried grass shrimp.

What does it mean when one of the best things in a $150 dinner are tiny shrimp (which you can buy at a bait shop for pennies) served deep-fried and salted?

Next round, two servings of the Maine Lobster bisque, two orders of spelt pasta with dried swordfish belly, and an order of cuttlefish canneloni.

The bisque tasted like lobster, cream, and cognac. Which I guess makes it good if you like those things. I'm relatively ambivalent. What was odd here was that the two servings of bisque tasted markedly different, one tasting strongly of cognac, the other tasting mildly of cream. Inattentive plating or what? Weird.

Spelt pasta was nice and al dente and pretty damn good once you got used to the texture. The shaved swordfish belly (used similarly to bottarga or mojama) added a welcome fishy salty dimension to the otherwise one-dimensional pasta.

I really liked the cuttlefish canneloni, though others at the table were less impressed. I thought the ink-colored pasta was cooked perfectly and the contents were fishy and flavorful--one of the only deeply flavorful dishes we were served.

Entrees came and went with little fanfare. I was personally offended by the cioppino, which consisted of a large garlic and crab covered crostone, a small ladleful of tomato broth, maybe a half-dozen clams and a chunk of overcooked rockfish. I'm not one to bitch about prices, but $30 for that dish was an unconscionable mark-up and also wasn't a damn thing like what cioppino should be. Who did Paul Bertolli blow to be able to get away with serving a dish like that at his restaurant? Oh right, Alice Waters. I hear she's an uncut eight inches.

I will admit that the tomato broth was pretty good--rich and focused.

The whole sea bream was the entree highlight with the sweet old balsamic complementing the light buttery flesh. The fish itself was expertly deboned.

Grilled Boston mackerel was a disappointment only because it was overcooked to the point of dryness, a rare feat in cooking for such an oily fish.

Fava bean puree side dish was pretty tasty--sort of like aromatic Italian refritos.

Lastly a round of desserts and digestifs. My rosewater, saffron, and pistachio "bombe" was a disappointing plate of three milky (as opposed to creamy) tasting and very lightly flavored ice creams. No fruit. No cake. No mold. No sauce. It wasn't even shaped into anything unusal. Just a square. It looked like a piece of neapolitan ice cream sliced out of a rectangular ice cream box. And like I said it tasted like sweet milk. The souffle was much better, though surprisingly eggy tasting.

The highlights of our dinner was the alcohol. 2006 Bandol Rose was excellent, as was the 2006 Vieux Telegramme white. A glass of 1988 Malvasia was rich and sherry-ish. A second rose de pinot noir was decent but a bit sweet. We had a nice moscato d'asti that tasted of pear and sweet apples. We also enjoyed a rich oak-aged moscato grappa that was deep, complex, sweet, and caramelly. Probably the best distilled spirit I've ever consumed.

A few of the other attendees at the dinner were Oliveto regulars and they acknowledged the sub-standard nature of this dinner. So I should probably give Oliveto a second chance. But here's my thing--if you're going to do such a highly publicized dinner that is the source of much celebration every year it should be a showcase for your kitchen's cooking. This dinner felt like an obligatory after-thought. Like the Tony Awards.

I don't care if you don't specialize in fish. If you're going to make the decision to serve it, it'd better be good. This food was competent with flashes of exceptionality and a few instances of mediocrity.

One last note. Much of Oliveto's fish was not sustainably harvested despite the assertions of "conscientiously harvested fish" on their website. The scallops are trawl caught and the harvesting of scallops by trawl is one of the most destructive fishing methods around. The skate, triglia, and (most surprisingly) King Salmon are also trawl caught. All of Oliveto's tuna, swordfish, and rockfish are longline caught which is also of questionable sustainability and results in significant bycatch, particularly in overseas fisheries.

Given the availability of hook-and-line caught, diver harvested, and sustainably farmed versions of many of these fish and Oliveto's super-premium prices I question why such a major player in the California Cuisine world wouldn't use the most sustainable sources for these fish.

Seems lazy and complacent, just like Oliveto.

Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant
5655 College Ave
Oakland, Ca 94618
Reservations: 510-547-5356

Thursday, June 14, 2007

HFF Returns: Wood Tavern

I'd never put much stock in how outside forces can conspire to muddle one's enjoyment of a dinner out. Until, that is, I went to Wood Tavern (6317 College Ave, Oakland) for the first time and service was so goddamn weird (even before the credit card debacle at the end) that it put an enormous damper on the meal.

Our return visit, however, was exceptional.

We were greeted warmly and offered a spot at the bar while we waited for our table to be ready (a nice big table in the window). We got a bottle of the 2002 Au Bon Climat "Hildegard" white table wine (pinot gris/pinot blanc/aligote). It was crisp and honeyed with light toasty oak and refreshing acidity. I would've liked a little more complexity on the finish, the wine fell off pretty sharply after moving warmly across the palate, but other than that it was tasty. Perhaps it was just the slightest bit too old. Wood Tavern's wine list is still middling at past, lacking significant geographic and varietal diversity and depth. I'm sure it'll grow with time.

First course. Charlie had the english pea and mint soup (with suprisingly no pork products). Really fresh green pea flavor and pronounced garlic. The mint flavor was present but subtle. I had the ahi tuna tartare which was a trio of small plates--a molded disc of diced tuna, another disc of Oregon bay shrimp with spicy chilies, and a dollop of fresh light cucumber and avocado mousse. All three were good separate and combined, though the tuna was of mediocre quality.

Entrees. I had the "Wicked Good Seafood Stew." It was excellent. Truly spicy tomato broth filled with chunks of meaty linguica, monkfish, clams, Oregon shrimp, mussels, and a shit ton of octopus. Other than a few tough bits of octopus, the disparate ingredients were each cooked impeccably. Charlie had pan-roasted chicken wtih artichokes and bread crumbs. Chicken was rich and moist, accompanying veggies were cooked nicely. The added pan jus, while buttery and flavorful, was very salty.

Desserts were much more interesting this visit. Charlie had the profiteroles filled with bright minty ice cream and I had the strawberry shortcake which was surprisingly moist. Strawberries were sweet and juicy and the obligatory balsamic glaze was complementary without being trite.

Service was friendly and approachable but professional. No weirdness, though I'd say that Wood Tavern still needs to figure something out with their water service. Having the first thing a server ask you is if "tap water is okay?" is something of a turn off.

Without the distractions of my previous trip, I was able to appreciate more the decor which is tony but unpretentious. The dark wood is fabulous, tables spacious, and the mismatched vintage (real silver) flatware is a great touch.

I thought the menu was taking what I viewed to be bigger risks with flavors and preparations this time. Sure Wood Tavern still had the obligatory menagerie of animal products available, but many of the preparations seemed more creative. I don't know if this is a product of a successful review or the opportunity to use more diverse late spring/summer produce, but whatever it was I appreciated the evolution of the menu.

So consider my opinion changed. Add Wood Tavern to rotation.

Still need to get back there with a bigger group to try the charcuterie and cheese plates.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Why Yelp! Sucks

Our nation, every wondrously putrid acre of it was built on democracy. The premise that all educated land-owning white males had the right to a say in how their nation would be governed. What did they come up with? An elaborate republican system that would become increasingly centralized and imperialistic with time while spawning massive spiraling bureaucracies. It's in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, give it a read.

What they didn't envision was a world where any old douche bag with a computer could make declarative assertions about the quality of restaurants.

This started with Zagat's (it probably started with some cocksucker in ancient Rome who collected opinions on stone tablets, but the Masons make sure no record exists). What was originally one sexually frustrated couple's attempts to correlate their friends' restaurant reviews is now a guidebook of international authority.

What people forget is despite this institutionalization, Zagat is still just a bunch on uninformed persons' opinions based on no credentials or rubric. It's meaningless folks! No more important than your opinion or mine.

This is why citysearch, Yelp!, et al are dangerous. They lend institutional credibility to anybody's opinion. There is not strength in numbers, more does not necessarily equal better. Besides the fact that self-righteous assholes are more likely to post their criticisms than their praises, users of these sites are also going to gradually develop similarly focused opinions. It's groupthink. It happens. Take a look at Yelp! and pay close attention to what people criticize and how they do it. The vast majority of reviewers are going to overemphasize service complaints and are going to be uncritical in their food reviews--using terminology as to what "works" and does not "work" instead of approaching the food critically.

Here comes the interjection--aren't you a self-righteous asshole posting opinions on the internet?

I most certainly am.

What I don't have behind me is a machine that lends credibility to what I write beyond the credibility that my own opinion brings. I'm one man with one opinion. I try to be informative, critical, helpful, and eminently subjective but all that I write is just that.

And this is why individual food critics are better than democratic shouting matches on websites. They have the authority of one man or woman and that one man or woman's palate and taste.

Despite his pretendings of objectivity, Michael Bauer of the SF Chronicle has very particular tastes that are easily read. You can learn whether a restaurant might interest you not based on the end 1-4 star assessment, but from the content of the review. Maverick, a restaurant which Bauer only gave two stars I went to because it sounded like something interesting based on what he wrote about. I also know that Bauer has a thing about loud restaurants and he dinged Maverick by AT LEAST a half-star if not more because he found it oppressively loud. I don't care so much about that so I didn't factor that aspect of his review into my equation. Wood Tavern, a restaurant that I had very mixed feelings about I figured Bauer would love and sure enough, he gave it three stars not soon after I ate there.

Are there people who slavishly follow Michael Bauer's reviews? Sure. But at least they can't pretend that they're doing anything else. A Yelp!, Zagat, or citysearch user can claim that they're decision is based on that institution's rating as an opinion clearinghouse. Not to mention that Yelp! and citysearch are forprofit entities that sell services that can boost restaurants' exposure on their sites. But nevermind that.

The Michelin Guides (and most travel guides in general) are better alternatives to review websites and Zagat because they rate based on a rubric that you can either agree or disagree with. The Michelin Guide reviews restaurants and attractions based on a rubric that has been shaped by what they have come to understand that their members/users expect and appreciate. The criteria is nothing but the dubious assertion that everyone has a right to have their opinion codified into some sort of worthwhile standard (what's oft-forgotten about Wikipedia is that despite it's open-source democratic editing process, there are set criteria and there is an oversight board).

And if you want the amateur perspective (and there's nothing wrong with that--the professionals are just amateurs who get paid) read food blogs. Bloggers are going to get more in depth than a 100 word Yelp! post. You'll get a sense of that writers' tastes and critical skills. You'll know whether you have similar tastes. You'll probably learn something. Enjoy it as you would any other writer's work. If you're traveling, pick up a guide that provides information more than it levies judgments and go with an entity/agency/author whose tastes are in line with your own.

In conclusion? Read mainstream restaurant reviews. Read food blogs. Boycott Yelp!

That exclamation point is part of Yelp!'s name. I'm not trying to exclaim that you should boycott Yelp! I'm just saying it.

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