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In the bad old days (and they weren't all that long ago), despite the fact that San Francisco is surrounded by water, it was never a sure thing that the fish you would order in a restaurant had any kind of recent acquaintance with the liquid. (Especially, it seemed, in the places lining the eventually-ironically-named Fisherman's Wharf.) An older-and-wiser gentleman added immeasurably to my education by teaching me a short phrase invaluable when ordering fish all over the globe: "What's fresh and local?"
San Francisco, CA 94114
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
Fritto misto $8
Blue-nose sea bass $16
Grilled salmon $12.75
Panna cotta $5
Open for lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Reservations accepted for parties of six or more
Muni: 24, F
Noise level: high
This question usually cut down the options that had been listed rather optimistically on the menu, but introduced me to delicate sand dabs in Southern California, tasty wild salmon in Seattle, and rich shad roe on the East Coast.
Over the years, however, as we've put an increasing emphasis on freshness in our ingredients (it's well-nigh essential in the ever more popular and easily available sushi), reliable rapid transport systems have arisen so that we can now regularly feast on (iced but unfrozen) fish pulled from seas halfway around the world.
This practice helped contribute to a renaissance in fish restaurants: some (like Aqua in San Francisco, Oceana and Citarella in New York) intent on invention, combining seafood with multiple other ingredients, herbs, and spices; and others (like Bradley Ogden's Yankee Pier in Larkspur, and Mary's Fish Camp and Pearl's Oyster Bar in New York) celebrating the American Northeast traditions of fried fish, clam chowder, and lobster rolls. Yet a third kind of fish house -- the Greek-inspired places proliferating in New York and offering fresh fish simply grilled with a slick of olive oil at blindingly high prices (the first, Estatorio Milos, was an outpost of one of the most fashionable restaurants in Toronto) -- has yet to find its way to the West Coast.
I wasn't quite sure what would be the mode of cooking when I went to Catch, a new fish place in the Castro whose logo features a fish caught in its name, but I did know that in the glimpses I'd had of the place while driving or strolling by, it seemed to be a stylish spot, full of happy people (especially on the semi-enclosed patio that fronts on Market). (I was thinking only of the location when my father asked me where I was eating that night. "Oh, I'm going to a gay fish house," I replied, carelessly. "Where do you think they find the gay fish?" he replied.)
I was there a little early, told I could wait at the bar until my friend arrived (they don't take reservations for groups fewer than six), and because it was a rainy, chilly night, I impulsively asked for a hot buttered rum, which completely stumped the cute, young, sweet bartender. I don't think he'd ever heard of it, nor a hot toddy, either, but he willingly assembled quite a creditable toddy under my tutelage.
When Will arrived, he preferred a table on the hopping patio to one in the less cramped big dining room, separated from the glittering bar by a wall topped with undulating, wavelike frosted glass (inexplicably decorated with a sinuous red line, rather than a more seaworthy blue or green). I followed him to a table under the heat lamps right by the windows on Market, near enough to our neighbors that we discussed when to ask for the lamps to be turned on and off and what we were eating without raising our voices.
The menu was rather short (nine starters, two soups, two salads, three sandwiches, four pastas, seven main dishes), very reasonably priced, especially considering the urbane setting, and of a decidedly Italian bent (polenta fries with marinara, fritto misto, risotto with frutti de mare), despite a tuna tartare here and a French onion soup there. Will wanted crab cakes and mahi-mahi, which was the only main course special offered, somewhat to my surprise. (Since there were only two fish dishes -- blue-nose sea bass and salmon -- listed under the main courses in a place that presents itself as a fish house, I'd expected more of a catch-of-the-day feeling to the recital of the specials.) I nudged him more in the direction of the bass, which he'd considered and then rejected because of a rosy memory of a Chilean sea bass he'd had at Zazie up on Cole. "Are all basses Chilean sea bass?" he asked. "No," I said. "In fact, I think 'Chilean sea bass' was a name dreamed up by marketers to popularize a fish called Patagonian toothfish, which was so successful that it's now in danger of being overfished."
I chose peel-and-eat shrimp, followed by the salmon. The first courses were decent, if not thrilling. Will's pair of small but plump crab cakes hadn't been overhandled and homogenized in preparation, and they actually tasted of crab, though the accompanying rouille was a pale shadow of the expected spicy, peppery, garlicky mayonnaise that's an essential accompaniment to bouillabaisse. I got a nice pile of slightly too firm shrimp, with small crocks of cocktail sauce and tartar sauce and wedges of lemon: fun to eat, undemanding of deep thought from either the cook or the consumer.
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