The importance of pleasing or dramatic views with your dinner is debatable. One school of thought is that all the attention should be put on the plate. But there's no denying that a lovely setting, whether urban or natural, can enhance the occasion. San Francisco has a number of restaurants whose seaview locations trump their uneven cuisine, from the tourist traps lining Fisherman's Wharf to the Cliff House and Beach Chalet. Few places leap to mind where your meal rises to the level of the spectacle of the bay panorama — the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building is perhaps the exception. The arrival early this year of hotly anticipated and ambitious new twin restaurants right on the Embarcadero, just feet from the bay, offered a chance to eat rather well in a stunning location.
It took the 1989 earthquake to open up that possibility, although another decade passed until the Port of San Francisco offered the Rincon Park site to restaurateurs. Nine more years and a reported $20 million later (more than $8 million on construction, and $11 million on the interior design), Pat Kuleto's Epic Roasthouse (for meat) and Waterbar (for fish) are now ready for their close-ups.
The famed restaurant designer and owner (Boulevard, Farallon) has said that he intended his new buildings to resemble restorations of post-1906-earthquake construction: a steam-powered pumping station for bay water (Epic), and a distribution center (Waterbar) to deliver it. None of this charming fantasy is apparent as you approach the duo, which look a little lonely and out-of-place, like suburban McMansions, huddled together under the massive span of the Bay Bridge. There's no hint of age on their crisp exteriors. The steakhouse is vaguely Tuscan, and rosy bricks cloak the undistinguished facade of Waterbar, where we're headed.
There's more visual excitement inside than out. Huge windows overlook the bay on the left as you enter. There's a big round bar with iridescent bubbles of glass suspended above it. That's alongside the main dining room, with plush, posh velvet booths set around two massive round glass-pillared aquariums almost as impressive as the kelp forest at the Monterey Aquarium. The aquarium was consulted on the strictly-for-show inhabitants of the pillars, including brightly colored fish and slightly sinister wolf eels.
There's another, less spectacular room tucked behind the main dining room, and sure enough, that's where we're led, past the enormous, brightly lit stainless-steel-and-white bustling open kitchen. Here the ceiling is low and the decor seems an afterthought — a few kitschy realistic fish sculptures swim up a brick wall. But there's still a view of the bridge and walkers strolling by, and we reassure each other that we like where we are.
When you open the menu, you'll see the kinds of numbers — $58, $90, $160 — that are more usually attached to durable goods such as clothes and small appliances, which will live with you much longer than the few minutes of pleasure you'll garner from the dishes offered. Unless, that is, you subscribe to the "a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips" school of thought, or the theory in a recent New York Times article on happiness that people tend to take more pleasure in experiences than in things. The reality is that Waterbar cost millions to open, and is now spending big bucks on tons of staff and the best ingredients. The restaurant has, in fact, dropped some of its prices since opening: The $50 one-and-a-half-pound lobster was once $75, and a $250 six-pounder no longer appears, ceding place to a grilled or wood-oven-roasted $160 four-pounder. Even desserts have gone down a buck. There's plenty of stuff available at lower price points ($9-$18 for starters, $29-$34 for mains), which is where we concentrate our attention.
We might have been tempted by a shellfish platter less grand than the $90 assortment (lobster, crab, oysters, shrimp, stone crab claws, scallop ceviche), which is the only one on offer, or raw oysters ($2.75 each), but we gravitate to more complicated dishes. True-flavored fresh sweetpea soup is one of three ($9 each) under the disconcertingly jokey heading of Lovin' Spoonfuls. It's poured from a little pitcher onto a knot of smoked ham slivers, and is enhanced with crème fraîche and mint oil. Two beautiful silvery whole Monterey sardines ($11) are lightly grilled and crisscrossed atop fried garbanzo beans, with only a suspicion of lemony bagna cauda sauce. Their category, Salads and Such, also contains alluring dishes such as fried freshwater smelts with fingerling potato salad, and local halibut with foie gras, pea tendrils, and lobster essence. My favorite dish of the starters is an invention of chef Parke Ulrich, veteran of many years at Farallon. It's two fat chunks of bone marrow, marinated in balsamic vinegar and thyme, topped with an extravagance of Dungeness crab lumps, glazed with truffle sauce. The dark, fatty, glistening marrow and the gleaming-white silkiness of the crab play against each other, both on the fork and in the mouth. Chosen from a list of ten ceviches and other starters (including Iberico ham, the only meaty one), the geoduck ceviche is a small heap of tiny frills of the chewy, briny clam dressed with Meyer lemon and chervil, surrounded by four thin slivers of artichoke heart. It seemed alarmingly minuscule.
The smallest portion of our main courses was a tiny square of seared Atlantic cod, perched atop fat butter beans scattered with parsley and infinitesimal dice of smoky and welcome chorizo. Next to it the dazzling signature dish, the rock cod "Colbert" ($29) ("our version of fish 'n' chips"), presented upright atop coleslaw, its back slit and filled with the rich butter, shallot, and tarragon sauce named after Louis XIV's minister, looked like a whale. It came with a silver, paper-lined cup full of glorious French fries and a container of aioli. An easy-to-eat plate of seared filets of sweet petrale sole ($28) came with deconstructed petits pois à la Française (a baby head of Little Gem lettuce on one side, peas on the other, and some smoked bacon chunks). The best part of the seared walleye pike construction ($29), which came with a chopped date relish and a swirl of tomato reduction, was the beautiful baby multicolored carrots — yellow, white, orange, purple, even green — upon which the square of firm, white-fleshed fish was laid. This is good food, but not dazzling enough for our expectations. We washed down our fish with a lovely Sancerre, chosen from an impressive 25-page list of cocktails, wines, and other liquid temptations.
We've long been fans of pastry chef Emily Lucchetti's work at Farallon, but we found the desserts here well executed but something of an afterthought: a nice gooey bittersweet chocolate pudding cake, a pleasant fresh strawberry tart, Meyer lemon crème brûlée ($9), and a pineapple caramel cake in which, alas, the fruit, caramel, and cake were not cooked together but introduced only on the plate.
The room had become increasingly, painfully noisy during the meal. As we left, we discovered the true appeal of the main dining room, besides its glamorous deep booths and striking aquariums: You could actually conduct a conversation here. True luxury! We realized we were in a noisy Siberia only at the very end of the evening.