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Love Shack 

Find excellent New England seafood in a little place on Market

Wednesday, Aug 16 2006
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After three weeks of happily dining on goose liver in Budapest, cevapcici in Belgrade, and mititei in Bucharest, I was thinking about what I really wanted to eat when I came home to the good ol' U. S. of A. When I've been eating abroad and am hungry for straightforward, classic American cooking, a big, thick, juicy, uncompromising grilled steak often springs to mind, but San Francisco is not rich in steakhouses, alas. (And I don't get offered steak at my friends' houses, either, even at backyard barbecues; they prefer to turn out complicated dishes. I may have to break down and purchase a Weber kettle.)

The answer, this time, was easy: I wanted to have another meal at the place where I'd had my very last dinner before flying off to Eastern Europe on the morn. The site of that repast was the Woodhouse Fish Company, a New England crab shack that recently miraculously appeared at the corner of Market and 14th St., complete with hand-lettered signs in the windows promising Dungeness crab, Ipswich clams, and fresh oysters.

I'd chosen Woodhouse for my traditional dinner with Hilary and Martine during the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, not just because it was within walking distance from the Castro, but because I'm a fool for crab shacks (and what they purvey, especially, mmm, lobster rolls). It's true that a couple of my favorites roost on manicured streets in the West Village of New York rather than within smell of salt spray, but if you don't happen to be driving the rocky coast of Maine, I say love the one you're with.

Despite Woodhouse's no-reservations policy and its comparatively snug quarters, we had no problem snagging seats on the banquette, under an enlarged vintage photo of crusty sea salts sprawling around a tumbledown shack (said sea salts being relatives of Woodhouse's owners, the MacNivens, according to our server). As we perused the short-but-sweet menu, a printed page bearing such magic and iconic words as oysters, crab, and lobster, we also admired our clean surroundings: white walls, white-tiled floors with mosaic crab insets, and a column wittily collaged with colorful graphics that once wrapped canned fish.

We swiftly decided on sharing a whole boiled New England lobster (flown in from Maine), hot; a local Dungeness crab, cold; an avocado stuffed with seafood; and a side of fries and another of corn off the cob, chosen from a list of seven sides that included such options as onion rings and garlic bread.

While we anticipated our food, we mixed our own do-it-yourself lemonades, which showcased Woodhouse's attention to detail: glasses full of shaved ice and an extravagance of fresh lemon juice, accompanied by a carafe of cold water and, the divine touch, a glamorously designed wavy bottle of sugar syrup, the best way to sweeten a cold drink. It was like a citron pressé as served in a Parisian cafe, only better.

As it happened, we got both our lobster and our crab hot (the server hadn't known that the kitchen had run out of cold whole crab), but we fell immediately to cracking and extracting sweet morsels of flesh from the succulent beasts, and comparing their essence (I usually prefer whichever is in my mouth at the moment, I confessed). There was, anyway, plenty of cold crab heaped upon one side of the split avocado, the other topped with big pink prawns that seemed to have been cooked, alas, with no seasonings at all. But the smooth, luxurious flesh of the ripe avocado was a lovely foil for all the glossy seafood we were feasting upon (and we appreciated the dish's accoutrements of nicely dressed greens, tomato, cucumber, watermelon, and crunchy garlic toast). The fresh-cut french fries were the big floury kind, and disappeared quickly. Coleslaw, which came with both the lobster and the crab, was simple and good: shredded purple and green cabbage in a minimum of mayo. The corn never arrived, we had to ask for melted butter for the lobster, and I was slightly saddened to hear that Woodhouse offers neither dessert nor coffee. But we had to hotfoot it back to the Castro for the divine Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box, so we weren't in the mood for lingering — just happy to be full of the excellent lobster and crab under our belts.

It was a foregone conclusion that my mother was coming with me for my big welcome-back-to-S.F. dinner; if there's lobster on offer, she's there. We were tucked in a window table on a sunny, breezy early Sunday evening, enjoying the vintage F-line streetcars as they rolled by. We started by sharing a bowl of superb New England clam chowder, the simplest blend of clams, chunks of potato, and lightly thickened cream: We loved the way the perfectly cooked potatoes were melting into the soup. We scraped our spoons to capture every last drop.

While my mom enjoyed her 1 1/2-pound lobster ("His name was Pinchy," the menu says), I was similarly enraptured with my lobster roll: again, a simple version, just chunks of lobster meat tossed with the merest whiff of mayo, piled in a puffy, buttery split bakery bun, and topped with just a few shreds of green onions. My brother and I had earlier discussed the vagaries of East Coast lobster rolls, which can range from fresh, hot, butter-drenched chunks to chicken-salad-style, masked with mayo and dense with chopped celery, on hot dog buns. This was a terrific take on the dish: lots of lobster on a lovely bit of bread. And this time, not only did the melted butter arrive with the lobster, there were also the essential if inelegant moistened towelettes instead of the homey dampened paper towels that arrived after our last meal. I also wish they'd snipped the lobster's claws so an ocean of water wouldn't cascade onto its plate in the course of dismemberment. We enjoyed the couple of dense chocolatey brownie bites that came with our check as a final sweet touch. (Though I'd prefer, say, lemon meringue pie or butterscotch pudding, as a paid option. A girl can dream.)

When I complimented our server on the lobster roll, he confessed that he hadn't yet sampled it; his favorites were the fish and chips, and an occasional special of East Coast steamers. When Joyce, baby Violet, and I had lunch at Woodhouse (wildly busy after the calm Sunday supper), we had to concur about the fish and chips: The Icelandic cod, lightly coated in a crisp batter made with Anchor Steam beer, broke apart into thick, luscious steaming-hot flakes of snowy white fish. It was as easy to eat and as irresistible as potato chips. We knew we must have that dish again. We also shared fried Ipswich whole-belly clams, sharply briny and gutty under their own crunchy batter, and a bargain $9 lunch special of half a big artichoke stuffed with plain undressed crab, lemon and tartar sauce on the side. (There are four $9 lunches, but the two-piece fish and chips on the list would have been entirely inadequate to our needs! We required the hungry-girl size.)

Woodhouse Fish Company isn't quite perfect — the restaurant needs to rethink both its bland tartar sauce (up the pickles, and I would suggest fresh dill, if I can be so bold) and cocktail sauce (why not freshly grated horseradish?). But I wasn't surprised to see Incanto's genius chef Chris Cosentino chowing down on fish and chips and fried clams en famille at the next table. The man not only knows how to cook, he knows how to eat.

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Meredith Brody

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