This question usually cut down the options that had been listed rather optimistically on the menu, but introduced me to delicate sand dabs in Southern California, tasty wild salmon in Seattle, and rich shad roe on the East Coast.
Over the years, however, as we've put an increasing emphasis on freshness in our ingredients (it's well-nigh essential in the ever more popular and easily available sushi), reliable rapid transport systems have arisen so that we can now regularly feast on (iced but unfrozen) fish pulled from seas halfway around the world.
This practice helped contribute to a renaissance in fish restaurants: some (like Aqua in San Francisco, Oceana and Citarella in New York) intent on invention, combining seafood with multiple other ingredients, herbs, and spices; and others (like Bradley Ogden's Yankee Pier in Larkspur, and Mary's Fish Camp and Pearl's Oyster Bar in New York) celebrating the American Northeast traditions of fried fish, clam chowder, and lobster rolls. Yet a third kind of fish house -- the Greek-inspired places proliferating in New York and offering fresh fish simply grilled with a slick of olive oil at blindingly high prices (the first, Estatorio Milos, was an outpost of one of the most fashionable restaurants in Toronto) -- has yet to find its way to the West Coast.
I wasn't quite sure what would be the mode of cooking when I went to Catch, a new fish place in the Castro whose logo features a fish caught in its name, but I did know that in the glimpses I'd had of the place while driving or strolling by, it seemed to be a stylish spot, full of happy people (especially on the semi-enclosed patio that fronts on Market). (I was thinking only of the location when my father asked me where I was eating that night. "Oh, I'm going to a gay fish house," I replied, carelessly. "Where do you think they find the gay fish?" he replied.)
I was there a little early, told I could wait at the bar until my friend arrived (they don't take reservations for groups fewer than six), and because it was a rainy, chilly night, I impulsively asked for a hot buttered rum, which completely stumped the cute, young, sweet bartender. I don't think he'd ever heard of it, nor a hot toddy, either, but he willingly assembled quite a creditable toddy under my tutelage.
When Will arrived, he preferred a table on the hopping patio to one in the less cramped big dining room, separated from the glittering bar by a wall topped with undulating, wavelike frosted glass (inexplicably decorated with a sinuous red line, rather than a more seaworthy blue or green). I followed him to a table under the heat lamps right by the windows on Market, near enough to our neighbors that we discussed when to ask for the lamps to be turned on and off and what we were eating without raising our voices.
The menu was rather short (nine starters, two soups, two salads, three sandwiches, four pastas, seven main dishes), very reasonably priced, especially considering the urbane setting, and of a decidedly Italian bent (polenta fries with marinara, fritto misto, risotto with frutti de mare), despite a tuna tartare here and a French onion soup there. Will wanted crab cakes and mahi-mahi, which was the only main course special offered, somewhat to my surprise. (Since there were only two fish dishes -- blue-nose sea bass and salmon -- listed under the main courses in a place that presents itself as a fish house, I'd expected more of a catch-of-the-day feeling to the recital of the specials.) I nudged him more in the direction of the bass, which he'd considered and then rejected because of a rosy memory of a Chilean sea bass he'd had at Zazie up on Cole. "Are all basses Chilean sea bass?" he asked. "No," I said. "In fact, I think 'Chilean sea bass' was a name dreamed up by marketers to popularize a fish called Patagonian toothfish, which was so successful that it's now in danger of being overfished."
I chose peel-and-eat shrimp, followed by the salmon. The first courses were decent, if not thrilling. Will's pair of small but plump crab cakes hadn't been overhandled and homogenized in preparation, and they actually tasted of crab, though the accompanying rouille was a pale shadow of the expected spicy, peppery, garlicky mayonnaise that's an essential accompaniment to bouillabaisse. I got a nice pile of slightly too firm shrimp, with small crocks of cocktail sauce and tartar sauce and wedges of lemon: fun to eat, undemanding of deep thought from either the cook or the consumer.
The main courses, still decent, were less thrilling: a plate of bland bass, bland polenta, a heap of fresh green beans, and dabs of romesco sauce that suffered from the same timidity as the rouille. The almonds in the sauce were scarcely identifiable as chopped nuts and tasted of them even less, and though I'm sure it was made with fresh tomatoes, the end result had all the excitement of canned. My grilled salmon was a trifle jazzier, sided as it was with mildly bitter Swiss chard, but its lemon tarragon beurre blanc was thin and broken and didn't taste strongly of lemon or tarragon.
Things picked up a bit with dessert, a panna cotta and a semifreddo al crocante chosen from an Italianate list that also included affogato. The panna cotta, a molded custard of lightly gelatined cooked cream, was especially nice. But the rest of the meal had been the kind of food that you forget about even as you're eating it, and I proceeded to forget about Catch for a few weeks.
Ron and I chose to dine in the warmly lit dining room on another chilly night. We'd both spent the afternoon in prison -- Ron in San Quentin, me with Kevin Spacey on death row in Texas -- so we were more than ready for a little comfort and a good meal. Unlike the hefty, utilitarian tanks full of lobsters and shrimp in Chinese seafood palaces, the small, decorative aquariums full of glittering, ornamental fish set in the walls high above us felt faintly perverse. Sharing three starters seemed more extravagant in concept than it did once they were on the table. The Gruyère and truffle fondue betrayed no truffle presence at all (something of a blessing when you think of some of the acrid truffle oils out there), and was more of a thin sauce than a fondue; we didn't feel compelled to use up all the apple, pear, and toasted baguette slices that surrounded its small bowl, though the portion had appeared small at first glance. We didn't feel compelled to finish the clam chowder, either, which was neither of the dreaded library-paste variety nor of the exciting school of thick cream and fresh herbs: It just lay there, slightly gluey, largely tasteless. The best dish was the fritto misto, pleasantly fried calamari, shrimp, ribbons of fennel, and a couple of slices of artichoke, decorated with a wedge of grilled artichoke that was the most full-flavored thing I'd had at Catch.
The fish choices this night were yellowtail jack with much the same accompaniments as the bass, a rerun of the salmon, and mahi-mahi again as the special. Ron wanted the yellowtail. We were close enough to our neighbors to have noted their disappointing plates of linguine (which seemed meager, especially in the number of clams) and roasted chicken (which looked to be on the dry side), and I hesitated between sautéed mussels and the "Catch seafood stew." The waitress opined that it was "excellent, bouillabaisselike," but "bouillabaisselike" is rarely encouraging. It's not that I waste time or thought comparing an American bouillabaisse to the real thing, whatever that is (debates about what constitutes a real bouillabaisse are endless and ongoing), it's just that dishes aspiring to bouillabaisse are so rarely successful on their own merits. I've had four or five vaguely bouillabaisse-y dishes in the past three months, and only one was truly delicious -- a stew of clams, mussels, and sausage at Zuni, where the properly saffron-infused, punchy broth had the courage of its convictions.
Courage was lacking tonight: My stew was generous in its contents (firm chunks of white-fleshed fish, shrimp, mussels, and tiny clams), but timid in its seasoning. Ron's big slab of fish was thoughtlessly overcooked, and the romesco sauce and green beans were much like those I'd sampled on the previous visit, though the crusty little roasted red potatoes it came with were far nicer than the polenta I'd tried before.
This night the dessert list seemed much less Italianate; in fact, the only Italian dessert was the panna cotta. We laughed when our huge plates arrived, with our desserts dwarfed by exuberantly applied swirls and stripes of red coulis and chocolate sauce. The décor was much more than the chewy chocolate terrine with raspberry sorbet and the stack of dry génoise, thick custard, and sliced banana masquerading as banana cream cake deserved. We hadn't been caught by Catch, and were now released.