New Kid on the Dock

Butterfield's makes a splash with good fresh oysters and grilled fish at calm prices

I'm not sure when I felt the rave coming on. Certainly the lightly battered, piping-hot smelt with a dab of aioli, presented as a taste teaser, put me in a magnanimous frame of mind. Maybe it was while sipping a $3.25 glass of chardonnay and slurping my way though a plate of exquisitely fresh Kumamoto and Olympia oysters ($5.75 for six, but I counted eight).

Then again, it could have been the crab salad ($8.75), a generous pile of fresh Dungeness, plucked from a tank at the front of the house, cooked and handshelled. Or the assorted wild greens underneath, with fennel, tiny sweet cherry tomatoes, and slivers of red pepper and carrot. The wonder of this dish is that the greens come undressed, so you can eat the crab with a squeeze of lemon, as God intended, then pour over the greens the tangy balsamic vinaigrette that sits on each table.

No — I know what put me over the top. After two visits it was driving me crazy. The fiftyish portly waiter with a mustache and twinkly blue eyes reminded me of a character actor — I couldn't figure out who. “Does anyone ever tell you that you remind them of a certain actor?” I asked.

“All the time,” he answered, without missing a beat. “Brad Pitt.” That was when I decided I loved the place.

Move over Hayes Street. Watch out P.J.'s, Scott's, Tadich and Swan. There's a new kid on the dock and the combination of low prices, great service and a SoMa location that's becoming ever more desirable makes Butterfield's Seafood a real contender.

So here's the downside. It's slightly hard to find, located above the Third Street Station bar at the corner of Townsend. Look for sandwich boards outside that beckon you upstairs with tempting descriptions of the seafood. In the afternoon, the occasional clack of pool balls and jukebox music drifting up from below punctuate your conversation; in the evenings, things downstairs get a little bit rowdier. (If you really like the barroom ambiance, you can eat down there.) And there are only eight tables, which right now is fine, since the place has been open less than six months and it's still something of a secret. Don't expect that to last.

On to the menu. Cracked crab, fresh from the waters of Bodega or Half Moon Bay, comes whole for $15, half for $8. If you're having a really leisurely meal, you can pick the crab from the tank, have it cooked to order and served chilled, a process which takes about 40 minutes. Munch on some of Acme's best and enjoy a half-dozen oysters while you wait.

There are usually several varieties available, including Kumamoto, Olympia (my favorite, dime-size and sweet), Wellfleet, Hog Island and Preston Point. They're served with an assertive cocktail sauce, plus a dollop of sinus-clearing horseradish and a peppery Worcestershire dressing on the side — although, as with the crab, I prefer my bivalves naked.

Other appetizers include steamed mussels ($7.50), fried squid ($5) and oyster stew ($4.50). The chowder of the day might be white clam or red mussel, delicious and ridiculously cheap at $2.25 a cup. I've paid more than that for a Calistoga at some of those fancy fish joints.

Among the sandwiches are fried oysters ($5.50), fried squid ($5), a crab sandwich ($8.75) and griddled rockfish on sourdough ($6). There's also an oyster loaf ($6.50), in which the oysters were somewhat overwhelmed by the bacon and onions.

Butterfield's does offer landlocked foodstuffs like grilled-vegetable and ham-and-swiss sandwiches. But as my very New York grandmother used to say when one ordered, say, chicken at a steak house, “I can't imagine why anyone would order that here.”

Depending on the availability of fresh fish, daily specials can include local halibut, salmon, prawns, trout, tombo tuna or sand dabs, all under $11. On one visit, the tuna was slightly overcooked; order it rare if that's how you want it.

The wine list is small, with the most expensive wines a Fleur de Carneros pinot noir and St. Supery sauvignon blanc at $15. Two chardonnays, by Hacienda and Cypress, are priced at $10 and $11 respectively. All wines are available by the glass, with $4 the most you can spend.

A scoop of Double Rainbow vanilla made an undistinguished apple brown betty, the only dessert available, worth eating. As one who's resorted to putting Double Rainbow on top of Eggo frozen waffles and Pattycake dessert cups, I can testify to its power of salvation.

The actual Butterfield behind this place is one Stewart Butterfield Pringle, whose middle name links him to the family of auction fame. Pringle worked with Elka Gilmore at the Village Pub in Woodside and at the Zuni Cafe before striking out on his own.

He chose seafood both because it's his favorite and “it's traditional to San Francisco.” And every morning he's down at Pier 33 selecting the day's freshest catch.

His goal, says Pringle, is “an everyday place, nothing complicated, just good-quality, simple food.” And I say amen to that. There are days when life is complicated enough that I don't want to have to consult Larousse Gastronomique to figure out what's on my plate. Some fresh oysters, not rockefellered or mornayed, a nice piece of grilled fish, a reasonably priced glass of white wine, and I'm very, very happy.

Butterfield's Seafood, 202 Townsend, S.F., 281-9001. Open Mon-Thurs 11:30 am-10 pm, Fri 11:30 am-11 pm, Sat 12:30 pm-11 pm.

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