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Trawling on Church 

A delightful Italian seafood trattoria worth finding in Upper Noe Valley

Wednesday, Feb 21 2007
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Every time I've strolled on upper Church, I've been charmed by the street, dominated by a majestic church façade surrounded by carefully kept Victorians (one with a flickering gaslight in front) and small eclectic shops. The neighborhood just got even more appealing with the arrival of a small and intimate Italian restaurant whose name announces its menu: Pescheria.

Fish indeed: Only one item of the 18 listed on the compact menu isn't piscine — a salad of mixed greens with sharp Sardinian cheese — although every time I've called or dined there, a nightly special of steak was available. On my first visit — a dinner with friends from out of town and their favorite San Francisco couple — we were in a celebratory mood as we snuggled into our table, set between the bar and the front windows at a slender banquette. We managed to sample much of the menu by creating a five-course feast. We began with a single oyster each — there were three different varieties available that night, and we chose small, crisp, creamy Kumamotos, washed down with similarly crisp and creamy Billecart-Saumon champagne (I said we were feeling celebratory).

We continued with a textbook velvety and deep-flavored cream of lobster soup, served in a huge shallow bowl, decorated with a knot of lobster meat; a platter of octopus salad, the slightly too-firm chunks of octopus mated with sliced artichokes, potatoes and chopped Italian parsley in a good oily vinaigrette; and a platter of baked stuffed clams, identified as "Bronx Italian" on the menu, and although much fresher and brighter-tasting than most of the similar dishes I've had on the East Coast, still suffered from a surfeit of bread crumbs, slightly obscuring the clam texture and flavor.

Our favorite dishes on the table were a creamy polenta topped with a generous amount of lump Dungeness crabmeat, minced garlic chives, and a drizzle of excellent olive oil, and a special that night of plump East Coast steamer clams, in a broth made up mostly of their own juices. The mollusks were stronger-flavored than West Coast ones, with an almost-livery tang. We washed down this bounty with an infrequently seen Basque white wine, Txomin, from a wine list that features about three dozen carefully chosen whites and a dozen reds. (The eclectic, well-stocked bar also offers half a dozen signature cocktails as well as more than a dozen tequilas and half a dozen grappas.)

Then came a shared pasta: There are only three offered, and therefore I was surprised that this course was the only real disappointment that night. The dish, of orechiette (little ear-shaped pasta), wild mushrooms, rapini, truffle oil, and ricotta salata, seemed a little dull and unbalanced — it may be the first time that I've wished there were more rather than less truffle oil in a dish, as it tends to be overpowering.

But our main courses more than made up for that little stumble. The five of us managed to order all the four secondi on offer, and I thought they were all terrific, and perfectly cooked. One of my friends didn't quite agree — she found her arctic char, perched atop a careful layering of celery root purée, sautéed mustard greens, and frisée, the whole crowned with a poached egg, bland. I happily traded her for my spicier petrale sole, the delicate fish amped up with a pungent, garlicky salsa verde and garnished with potatoes dusted with sea salt and glazed sweet-and-sour cipollini onions. I thought the char dish was subtler, but beautifully conceived in its variety of textures and flavors. The butterfish in cartoccio, cooked in parchment with meaty, new-to-us Gambone mushrooms, porcini butter, and leeks, was a dramatic presentation, releasing a cloud of fragrant steam as the package was opened at the table. But even more dramatic was the zuppa della pescheria for two, brought to the table in a glamorous big covered tureen, and ladled out into deep bowls over grilled bread topped with aioli. The fish "soup" (more of a hearty stew) contained chunks of tai snapper, lots of mussels, clams, and fat pink prawns, and bulbs of braised fennel, and would easily serve three. Our only quibble was that we wanted more of the peppery broth than the trickle in the bottom of the tureen, barely covering a third of the seafood.

I could have stopped right there, replete and happy, but we lingered over four desserts: a spiced poached pear, the ruby-stained fruit sliced and fanned over the plate, with a bit of sweetened mascarpone; a dense chocolate hazelnut torte garnished with a tame wild-berry compote; and our two favorites, a just-made cannoli stuffed with sweetened ricotta and a big bowl of amaretto-tinged tiramisu.

In retrospect, since we'd sampled almost all of the menu, and had a splendid meal, I could have stopped right there. But when a fish house offers a single meat dish, it seems imperative to sample it, so Ruby and I headed to Pescheria with that in mind. We got there a few minutes before the 5:30 opening, so we took a little stroll, checking out the menus at Toast, a newish neighborhood diner, and Deep Sushi, which was a little too hip for me the one time I tried it. We also checked on the mysterious construction behind the art-deco tiled front of an erstwhile market across the street, and admired the heart-shaped double Niman Ranch rib-eyes offered for Valentine Day's at the butcher shop next door.

Tables were already filling up as we were shown to our snug deuce by the bar, which also offers counter dining on high brushed-metal chairs that duplicate the look of the less-lofty dining ones. We had time to admire the chic striped-wood tables (a bit small for my taste), the calm pale-blue-and-green paint job, and a beautifully decorated column, tiled in two contrasting styles, with glass tiles in the same aqueous blue-green colors above a base encrusted in black-and-white subway tiles. Perhaps the subway tiles, along with the East Coast steamer and baked "Bronx" clams, relate to the jaunty nomenclature that appears outside on the bright-blue awning, and nowhere else in the restaurant: Joey and Eddy, a name suitable for a borough or Little Italy pizzeria. The sophisticated menu and decor read much more like the fashionable glass tiles, a classy destination "pescheria" rather than a homey red-sauce dive. But our favorite bit of decor is the J Church streetcar that passes the window regularly, interspersed with vintage F cars deadheading back to the barn for the night.

The menu is almost exactly the same as the one offered several weeks ago. We share a simple, too simple, plate of large, imperfectly trimmed chunks of tuna, several boasting chewy connective tissue, in a bland lemon-and-oil dressing, with diced roasted yellow and red beets. Then we split a lovely simple version of linguini with clams, 18 Hog Island beauties in the shell, their juices mingling with toasted garlic, minced parsley, and fresh oregano.

My steak, a massive New York cut with a bone on one side and a strip of flavor-adding fat on the other, was lightly sprinkled with a bit of blue cheese that mostly added saltiness to the excellent meat, worthy of a top-notch steakhouse. It came with a few fingerling potatoes and bright-green Blue Lake beans, both accurately cooked. Ruby tried the arctic char again, with the yolk of the poached egg creating a perfect sauce for the creamy celery root purée, chewy rapini, crunchy frisée, and sweet fish, ringed with a tiny bit of pesto: I decided this was a brilliant creation, one of my favorite fish dishes ever.

Again, dessert seemed superfluous. But we shared a delicious nutmeg-scented cup of Frangelico with steamed milk, as warming and satisfying as the rest of the meal had been.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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