“Go while you’re still alive,” Esquire said of Angler last week, which only sounds slightly less funereal in the full context of its laudatory blurb. In crowning the Saison spinoff as the magazine’s Best New Restaurant in America for 2018, the editors cited chef Joshua Skenes’ “twisted fixation on finding the Best Ingredient Right Now” and threw in a bonus Roxy Music reference. When the restaurant you were already reviewing in a given week happens to win the top award from a highly regarded national media outlet, there is little choice but to brush off your lapel like Luke Skywalker at the end of The Last Jedi and carry on. The only other restaurant on Esquire’s list of 20 that I’ve been to is Che Fico, although Nancy’s Hustle in Houston sounds magnificent and also I am coming for you eventually, Voyager in Ferndale, Mich.
Is Angler really the best? I don’t know for sure, but I can see it. Skenes would reconfigure the orbit of the moon if doing so would cause perturbations in the ocean’s currents that would lead to a bloom of krill that would then make a single fish harvested from a calving glacier on the coast of Antarctica taste more intensely like itself than nature could muster. Angler’s ratio of staff-to-patrons is almost astonishing, its decor is apres-ski-meets-Voyageurs-National-Park, and the cocktails are very good. The only thing about it that rubbed me the wrong way — and I honestly and truly mean the only thing — is that the cryptic menu is of marginal utility beyond telling you what dishes the kitchen decided it wants to cook that day. Consequently, it can be hard to put together an à la carte meal that will leave you convinced that yours was a representative experience.
As it happened, I also had the opportunity to eat at Saison for the first time in my life last month as part of the Chase 2019 Private Dining Series. (I was alone among a group full of people who earn way more than I do, which often sucks, but that time it was lovely. I honestly enjoy sticking out like a sore thumb whose nail is painted sea green at those things.) The two restaurants’ kitchens are a lot alike, hung with arrangements of fruits and herbs in various states of desiccation that look almost Calder-esque if you walk around. At Angler, things are incrementally more rustic, and there’s slightly less of an emphasis on Grand Cru Burgundies, but the alchemical through-line is apparent. Skenes and his team so desire to make every item burst with its own essence that it’s almost Kantian, an obsession with elevating the thing-in-itself.
At Saison, this might mean a reserve caviar wrapped in warmed seaweed over a broth so buttery that the eggs don’t pop at all, they melt — and then serving it with Krug, the toastiest of Champagnes. Or a “whole radish” that’s really more of a salad made from every part of a radish, along with a gelee generated from the poaching liquid.
At Angler, there may be an embered ruby beet ($13), roasted and possibly confit’ed in some way until it looks like a sentient meteorite. Or a Hot Fried Rabbit ($40) that could described, simultaneously most realistically and most fancifully, as “bone-in rabbit sausage.” This isn’t tweezer food; this rabbit happened to be two unremarkable brown pucks on a bed of nothing, a move that suggests its own form of swagger. But they’re fairly incredible, rich and satisfying and guided by an idea of total rabbit-ness.
Then there’s the spotted prawns ($20 each), imports from Saison that seem hand-selected based on the quantity of roe inside. They’re gorgeous, messy, and saline-sweet, there to be shredded with the fingers. You get the impression that Angler’s menu is so severe because maybe, possibly, there aren’t step-by-step recipes per se, just gut feelings of what to do with a particular item or cut in order to draw out its thing-ness.
This sounds high-concept, but looked at another way, it be better understood as radically back-to-basics. It’s also an unforgiving way to go about everything, with no margin for error. Failure to attain perfection is straight failure, since there will be no sauces to conceal any blemishes — as in the antelope tartare ($20), which obliterates any trace of gaminess and comes with lettuce leaves that have been individually seasoned.
Of course, that ethos doesn’t strictly apply to things like the Parker House rolls with seaweed butter ($8 and $3, respectively). That’s not to suggest they’re anything but technically good, only to say that they take it easy on themselves. Salty and puffy-crisp and eight to an order, they’re fine if you just want a cocktail and a snack to snoop around and see what this place is about. Sit in the back, at the game bar — “game” as in wild animals, not the NFL — and stare at the schematic diagrams of jellyfish and the taxidermied bear and the bighorn sheep and all the impeccably attired servers scurrying.
Of the 10 drinks on the cocktail menu, zero have more than three listed ingredients. The Don Lockwood, a stripped-down version of a drink made famous by the Queens, N.Y., bar Dutch Kills and named after Gene Kelly’s character in “Singin’ in the Rain,” is a dad’s drinks for dad’s dads: bourbon, scotch, and maple. The Tuxedo #3 is more elegant, a gin-apricot-sherry trifecta garnished with a helix of lemon. For dessert, an ice cream sundae comes with a light shell of caramel and some cocoa nibs, the only too-trendy component in anything. It looks like Dairy Queen, but instead of soft-serve, it’s medium-hard-serve, and it doesn’t exactly melt. At $13, there are certainly more affordable ice creams out there, but it’s a showcase for vanilla-icity, one of the most complex (and unfairly maligned) flavors out there. Angler may not be a deep-sea fish with razor chompers, but it is certainly bioluminescent and lighting its own way.
Angler, 132 The Embarcadero, 415-872-9442 or anglerrestaurants.com