Rocco's Seafood Grill
2080 Van Ness (at Pacific), 567-7600. Open daily from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Reservations strongly advised. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet for $3. Muni via all Van Ness lines and the 19 Polk.
The sins of the father are visited on the sons and the tenants, so lately I've been spending half my life at Goodman Lumber. For years my bathroom ceiling leaked; the landlord sent over a series of hippie handymen instead of one real plumber, while I wondered, still I wondered, "Who'll stop the rain?" Finally, one grease-pawed hippie knocked the broken outflow pipe sideways, so the water went ... somewhere else. Years passed, our landlord died, and his progeny moved in upstairs.
A few weeks ago, my roomie TJ leaned lightly against the peeling, cracked wall behind the sink, and his hand went right through, opening a gap that disclosed 2-by-4s moldering with advanced rot. The timing was perfect -- earlier that same day, the new landlord's wife put her hand through her wall. Next day, a real plumber fixed the pipe, and since TJ is a good carpenter, our landlord gave us leave to repair our bath by any means necessary, at his expense. Hence, we've developed an intimate relationship with Goodman Lumber, and an acquaintance with the Old Clam House nearby. A half-day's squinting at p-traps and romex can leave you with a hunger that the Golden Arches can't scale.
The Old Clam House is perfect to plotz at while you peruse paint brochures or outwait 'stick traffic. Built in 1861 and serving food since 1865, its atmosphere is deliciously old-timey. Inside the funky old roadhouse metal saddles top the backbeats, and a dozen neon beer signs hang over the bar. The wooden walls are cluttered with old and new photos, license plates, and newspaper pages ("McKinley Wins Election"); the jukebox is rich in '60s sounds; and the dark wooden tables look like Down East time-travelers from 1949. The food -- mainly simple seafood and pasta -- is equally timeless, although prices are all too modern. Our favorites are the cold appetizers -- briny, juicy, mouth-filling medium-size clams ($6.50 for six), expertly shucked blue point oysters ($8 for six), prawn cocktail ($10), and a good, simple shrimp Louis ($12). The Boston clam chowder ($2.50/$4.50) is flour-heavy, but buttery and clammy. If the popcorn shrimp ($7) is typical, the fried offerings are swamped in overweight batter, and the glutinous crab-stuffed mushroom appetizer ($8) defies description and degustation. In all the mixed seafood entrees we tried (Clam House linguini, $13; Mescolanza, $18.50; cioppino, $19.50), the seafood was nicely sauced but mainly overcooked, the assortments dominated by rubbery bay shrimps and calamari. But when an out-of-the-way eatery stays in business for 133 years, you know they're providing something that people clamor for. It may just be comfort.
After several Goodman/Clam expeditions we wanted to reward ourselves with something more lavish, so with our remodeling adviser Chet in tow, we headed for the opposite end of town. Rocco's Seafood Grill, a newish, spiffier fish house (with barely higher prices) is owned by Sam Laval (of Izzy's Steak House), with Fog City alumnus Chris Moore as chef. Named after some legendary local fisherman of the '20s, like Old Clam it's got pleasantly cluttered old-timey decor, but on purpose. Under a high black ceiling and lower cream beams, warm walnut wainscotting supports Pompeii-red walls amassed with old French operetta posters, photos, playbills, and small impressionist reproductions; at one end stands a highlighted statue (a little less than Napoleon size) of a Napoleonic soldier. Gorgeous gleaming tabletops have polished white oak framed by mahogany. Numerous motels are nearby, and as a veteran lone traveler I was pleased to note several small tables angled along the edge of the dining balcony, overlooking the oyster bar and the street, so singletons can people-watch or read unembarrassed with their backs to the crowd. But the crowd is heavily hometown, the banquettes occupied by big family groups celebrating birthdays, graduations, anything.
For starters we loved the lush Hood Island oysters ($8 for six) with both mignonette and cocktail sauce. At a later meal, crab-cake salad ($7.50) had spring greens in a complex, delicious chive vinaigrette, topped with a lighter-than-air crab cake and a chile-stoked "Louis" dip. We could not discern bread crumbs or egg in the crab-cake filling -- just mayonnaise-based minced coleslaw (cabbage and red bell pepper) and sweet crab. But the gravlax ($7.50) seemed slightly dull, overwhelmed by the accompanying delicious brioche toast slices, while "peel and eat shrimp" ($5.95/$10.95) barely survived the heavy salt overdose from their packaged-tasting Cajun-style spice coating. The potato gnocchi with Maine lobster, corn, and curry cream ($10) was similarly handicapped by a brassy commercial curry powder, pushy with powdered ginger and turmeric. The "our specialty" coral Maine lobster bisque ($5) seemed a lobsterfied Campbell's cream of tomato.
A printed daily list of specials also notes the day's fresh fish. Chet lucked into some exquisite grilled wild Oregon sturgeon ($17), moist in the center, and with a touch of smoke from the grill. The fillet was wrapped around creamy mashed potatoes, subtly flavored with bits of fresh Florence fennel and chives, accompanied by sauteed summer squash slices. The potato-crusted roast king salmon ($17) was just as gorgeously moist and rich -- the best salmon I've had in years. "We'd better hide the kitty bag from Punky," I said. "After snooting so many other restaurant salmons, he'll demand this one as payback." The potato armature looked like canned shoestrings but didn't taste like them, emerging crisp, juicy, and greaseless from their task of shielding the salmon. Alongside was a nonce grilled ratatouille, crisp but too lean for joy. I tried the soft-shell crab special ($20). No fault of the restaurant, but one crab was perfect, the other a bit squishy; both were true, near-shell-free "buster crabs." They were fried in a garlicky, herbal, paper-thin batter and served with a spicy rouille that lost a bit of its eclat when all three of us decided the base was commercial mayo instead of house-made. Alongside was a well-suited puff of mashed sweet potato and a succotash of starchy-sweet early corn and black-eyed peas.
At a follow-up meal, TJ's "North Beach cioppino" ($19) had a fine, herbal tomato broth with tender mussels and clams, but the crab component had old-tasting frozen Alaskan king crab legs, not fresh local Dungeness. Among the few non-fish selections, the "petite cut" (ha!) of prime rib ($17), an 8-ounce slab of excellent boneless beef, arrived rare as ordered, well-trimmed and tender, if not aged long enough for true magnificence. Its accompaniments were "au jus," roasted red onion and mashed potatoes, mixed with their own skins and an assertive jolt of thyme.
Service was a bit odd at our first dinner: Our waiter overhovered while we studied the menu, but vanished just as we were ready to order; a busser was slow to remove appetizer plates, but overeager to remove entrees. The wine list was delightful, though, with markups just double the retail price, plentiful choices by the glass, and range enough for most tastes and wallets. After-dinner drinks were equally sane, with Remy VSOP at just $6.50, five different versions of Glenmorangie topping at $7.50, et al. Desserts (all $5.50) were classics: At the recommendation of a seventysomething "birthday girl" leaving the nearest banquette, we tried Floating Island, a Roaring '20s fad. Rocco's creme anglaise was blessedly light, but instead of several small puffs of poached meringue floating in it, there was only a single large one. "Our island is Australia," Chet observed. Key lime pie was standard-issue, with bottled-tasting key lime juice.
Chet had recently revisited Tadich Grill, ancient home of simple fish dishes, and just a week before, he'd eaten at Aqua. "This is much better and more hospitable than Tadich," he said. "And while the cooking at Aqua is incomparably superior, I really prefer eating here. It's excellent, and much more comfortable. At Aqua it's fish as art; here it's fish to eat." All three of us will keep eating at Old Clam House, too, but when we want wonderful seafood above simple solace, we'll return to Rocco's.