Am I Blue

Characterless chowders and seafood seem at home in the too-casual Blue Mermaid

Hope springs eternal. When I read that the specialty of the Blue Mermaid -- the restaurant in the Argonaut, a new "boutique" hotel in Fisherman's Wharf -- was to be chowder, I got excited. I love a good chowder, especially if the cook leaves the top of his flour bin tightly shut. Chowder may be the original "soup that eats like a meal," "a seafood soup associated with New England," according to The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, that dates to the 17th century, possibly from fishermen throwing their catch into a communal stew. I love a creamy New England clam chowder that really tastes of cream (a specialty at both Pearl's Oyster Bar and Mary's Fish Camp in New York). I recently had a perfect one, in which the smoky flavor of salt pork was balanced with fresh thyme, at the Yankee Pier in Larkspur. And I have happy memories of many Manhattan tomato-based clam chowders, an oily bluefish chowder I had at Biba in Boston, and an exquisite wild salmon and corn chowder at the Dahlia Lounge in Seattle.

I was also excited at the possibility of that oxymoron, a good seafood place in Fisherman's Wharf. Why not? There was a time when one steered clear of hotel restaurants, too: no longer. Some of our best can be found in hotels. In fact, on its Web site the Kimpton Boutique Hotel Group (owner of the Argonaut) boasts of its chef-driven restaurants.

On my first visit to the Blue Mermaid, I entered through the hotel, which is, in what architects term an adaptive reuse, housed in a four-story brick structure called the Haslett Warehouse, built in 1907 and once the largest fruit and vegetable cannery in the world. It's now owned by the National Park Service, and part of the Argonaut's deal with the Service involved sharing its space with a snazzy new Visitor Center for the Maritime Historical Park, which is clearly visible through a long glass wall that lines the entrance to the hotel's lobby.

Adrift: The soaring space feels more 
like a cafetorium than a restaurant.
Anthony Pidgeon
Adrift: The soaring space feels more like a cafetorium than a restaurant.

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Crab and corn chowder $6.50/bowl

Oysters Rockefeller $8.95

Seafood platter $29.95/large

Grilled salmon $16.25

NY cheesecake $4.50

771-2222

Open daily for breakfast from 7 to 10:30 a.m. and for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.

Reservations accepted for dinner only

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult

Muni: 10, 30, F

Noise level: moderate

471 Jefferson (at Hyde)

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The lobby is pretty snazzy, too, evoking all manner of boats -- cruise ships, sailing schooners, luxury liners -- in mixed-metaphor décor: chic floors striped in sleek light-and-dark wood, massive glowing saillike light fixtures, and witty seating (including armchairs slipcovered in bright red and embroidered with an "A" and teak deck chairs with crisp navy blue cushions piped in white). Neon-ringed portholes separate the elevators.

So I was somewhat taken aback when I turned a corner and entered a soaring space that seemed more like a high school gym than the intimate, upscale restaurant I was expecting. Pastel-painted picnic tables and casual tables and chairs filled the room, somewhat haphazardly. Sure, a bar lined one side of the room, which one doesn't expect in a gym, high school or otherwise. But I couldn't shake the strange feeling as I persuaded the perky hostess, who seemed pretty high-school herself, to seat me in one of the two booths in the place, unhappily located between the front door that opens onto Jefferson and a side door that leads to a patio with outside seating. The fog was rolling in -- seemingly right into the restaurant. Huge murals of vintage food-can labels adorned the wall, like nightmarish prom decorations. I looked at the open kitchen, alongside a display of baked goods and a list of desserts carefully printed on a board, and I suddenly got it. It wasn't a gym, but a cafetorium.

As soon as I sat down, I squirmed: Several of the many bright lights on the ceiling were aimed directly at my eyes, making me feel like James Cagney under close questioning in a '30s prison picture. The lights were lowered, eventually, but they were still unfortunately placed. By the time Bernice and Sharon joined me, I needed a drink.

One of us ordered a Pirate's Punch (Captain Morgan, Grand Marnier, "blended juices"), another a Dark 'n' Stormy (Gosling's Bermuda Rum, ginger beer, lime); it didn't really matter who got which, because both cocktails were weak and rather dull.

The centerpiece of the menu was, indeed, an array of eight chowders, including New England clam, Manhattan clam, salmon and fennel, and California clam (which, our server told us, was New England clam chowder with the addition of artichokes and asparagus). All were available in a cup, a bowl, or a bread bowl (a dreadful idea and a waste of bread). We ignored a wide selection of shellfish and other starters (spicy grilled chicken wings, cornmeal fried oysters, iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing) -- we were, after all, in a Chowder House -- and ordered cups of crab and sweet corn chowder, oyster and leek chowder, and shrimp and red pepper chowder ("That's my favorite!" enthused our waiter. "It's got a kick to it!").

I found them all rather insipid (though commendably flourless): sweet and characterless, tasting pretty much alike.

We moved on. Bernice and Sharon are both food-mad, what once would have been called "gourmets" and, later, "foodies," neither a word I much like: Anyway, they're good eaters. We spoke of our favorite food writers, and a little about our favorite foods; I was not happy to be treating them to this meal. The jumbo lump crab cake Sharon ordered was large enough (and it should have been, at $17.50), but it was also sweet and characterless, and the term "lump" was an exaggeration. I thought, longingly, of the crabmeat timbale that was a specialty of a vanished restaurant in Los Angeles, simply lump crabmeat, seasoned and shaped in a ring mold and carefully turned out on a plate. I was no luckier with my choice of entree. If the battered rectangle of firm cod in my sandwich had not recently been frozen, it tasted as though it had. I steered Bernice away from the spaghetti with shrimp, tomatoes, and basil (fearing an assemblage of ingredients rather than a dish), and she was rewarded with the best plate of the night: Her grilled salmon with lemon butter was perfectly acceptable, and came with creamy mashed potatoes that unexpectedly enhanced the fish.

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