Fish for All Seasons

Waiting for the yabbie at Yabbies Coastal Kitchen

A yabbie is an Australian crawfish that resembles a small blue lobster. So I learned from a brief conversation with the host at Yabbies Coastal Kitchen on Russian Hill, a glorious new seafood restaurant whose menu does not, as yet, include its namesake.

But yabbies "are being farmed in Texas," the host said, "and when they're available, we'll try to use them."

That's a day to look forward to. Meantime, chef Mark Lusardi's kitchen must make do with other maritime bounty, such as oysters (a half-dozen varieties), clams, mussels, Dungeness crab (though it's been a disappointing season locally so far), wild steelhead salmon, ahi, swordfish, and Maine sea scallops. Lusardi's menu also offers chicken, beef, and pasta, and the chef is happy to cook for vegetarians if asked.

If the kitchen sounds unusually versatile, that's because it is. One dish after another matches up fresh seafood with seasonal produce in inventive, skillful preparations. Many good seafood restaurants (such as Tadich Grill) emphasize the freshness of the fish while benignly neglecting the vegetables, but Lusardi's compositions have a holistic beauty in which every ingredient seems to have been carefully chosen for its taste, color, texture, and seasonality. Even in winter, when local produce markets aren't exactly horns of plenty, Yabbies dishes are greater than the sum of their formidable parts. That's the sign of great cooking.

Yabbies also features an interior design that strikes an appealing balance between contemporary and classical, with exposed brick, sconce lighting, and wide-plank wood floors. The dining room is entirely open, without columns or cantilevers of any kind, while arcs and strips of ice-blue glass trim give aquatic hints at the door and at the high, handsome bar midway along the south wall. Yabbies isn't as grand (or expensive) as marble-encrusted Aqua, but it manages to look comfortable, modern, and slightly opulent at the same time. In that sense it blends in smoothly with its upper Polk environs.

One member of our dinner party was an oyster fiend, and while elsewhere at the table there was anxiety about eating raw shellfish, he, along with the atmosphere of Yabbies (could anything truly go wrong in so beautiful a setting?), convinced us to try the "shucker's dozen" ($16.75) -- a selection of 13 oysters, plus ramekins of cocktail and minuet sauces (the latter consisting of red-wine vinegar, shallots, and cracked pepper).

The Fiend proceeded methodically through the shellfish, while the Sweet Tooth and I exercised caution, having to work up a bit of nerve to slurp the briny things down. Like whiskey or NyQuil, an oyster is something you knock back rather than savor.

"Do you think we'll get sick?" I asked the ST, who also happens to be an M.D. and knows about such things.

"I'll let you know in the morning!" he said.
Glad I asked. In fact the oysters were fine, though they tasted more of the sauces (particularly the aggressive minuet) than the sea. The Rhode Island fish chowder ($5.75), on the other hand, didn't taste like much of anything and was our only real disappointment.

Main courses (fish all around) were exemplary. The Fiend's salmon ($14.75) was the weakest of the lot, the fish having dried out slightly in cooking. (Wild salmon is less fatty than the farmed kind and is less forgiving about being overdone. On the other hand, it does taste better.) The slices of gold and reddish chiogga beets scattered around the plate had the opalescent beauty of rubies and topaz, but it was the wedge of potato and goat-cheese galette -- creamy and slightly tart, and nested in a bed of forest-green sauteed spinach -- that we were all trying to score an extra piece of.

Maine sea scallops ($18.75) had been seared to a pale-gold crustiness outside but were tender within. The half-dozen shellfish, each the size of a quarter, ringed a porcini risotto cake that had been topped with a warm truffled mushroom salad. The fragrant earthiness of the mushrooms made a nice match with the scallops' slightly sweet richness.

For zing, there was the ST's pepper-grilled ahi tuna ($18.50), done to a purplish rare and served with a jasmine-scallion rice cake, julienned grilled red peppers, and a whole roasted Japanese eggplant (which disturbingly resembled a beached whale in miniature, I thought). A tangy soy vinaigrette bound everything together.

We returned several evenings later to see if the kitchen handled the rest of the menu as well as it did the seafood. A mushroom-goat cheese tart ($6.95) featured a disc of pastry like a tiny tostada and was topped, in addition, with braised leeks and an exhilarating mound of cilantro. Mussels ($8.25) were sensational; they'd been steamed and were served in a spicy black bean broth also liberally dosed with cilantro.

The Sweet Tooth didn't care for his pasta ($8.25), farfel with shrimp and whitefish in a sauce of parsley, garlic, and lemon: too much parsley. But the grilled beef fillet ($17.75), cooked medium rare, was juicy and tender atop its bed of garlic spinach. It was surrounded by leaves of portobello mushroom in a red-wine reduction. (And without mashed potatoes, thank god.)

In an age of martini chic, the distinctive funnel-shaped glass is finding a variety of uses. Alain Rondelli fills them with calamari cocktail; Yabbies serves its gratifyingly decadent hot-fudge sundae ($6.25) -- with roasted bananas and gianduja ice cream -- in them.

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