San Francisco's lack of great seafood restaurants has always baffled me. Sure, we have our oyster houses, our sushi temples, our Dungeness crab tasting menus, but there are scandalously few places where you can get a piece of fish treated exceedingly well — especially sad considering our local waters are teeming with it.
Perched on Bernal Heights, Red Hill Station isn't anywhere near the bay, but its chef/owners, Taylor Pederson and Amy Reticker, come from the storied Anchor Oyster Bar and they are serving beautiful fish dishes in their small, stripped-down space. Though it's primarily a neighborhood spot, the 5-month-old place has the potential to be one of the city's better seafood restaurants. To get there, though, it needs to tighten up everything else.
There are a lot of highlights on the seafood-heavy menu. Red Hill served one of the best sandwiches I've had in recent memory, stuffed with albacore that had been slow-poached in olive oil and studded with capers and lemon juice. The oily tuna, bolstered with garlic aioli, melted into its buttered, toasted Acme roll, its juices dripping onto the plate and coating my fingers with every bite. I couldn't stop eating it, even as I complained about how full I was. I had similarly strong feelings about the bay shrimp that accompanied the Caesar salad. Heavy on lime juice and tossed with toasted garlic and bread crumbs, the tiny, flavorful shrimp wouldn't have been out of place at a Vietnamese restaurant.
If only the shrimp had been served with lettuce wraps and a zippy nuoc cham dipping sauce instead of wan Romaine leaves unevenly coated with a way-too-garlicky Caesar dressing. And though the only accompaniment that sublime tuna sandwich needed was a bright tangle of lemony greens, it instead came with a pile of dressing-drenched arugula topped with plain roasted beets and Brussels sprouts. Oddly, these boring “seasonal vegetables” made an appearance alongside several other dishes, and always remained uneaten. No one wants a naked roasted beet.
Occasionally the vegetables even threatened to ruin a near-perfect entree, like the almost translucent slab of roasted Fort Bragg black cod, cooked perfectly so that its flesh was firm but still moist. I can't remember the last time I had a piece of fish treated with so much respect. It was topped with a crumble of toasted almonds soaked in sage brown butter; a classic fall combination that stood up to the buttery fish but didn't overpower it. But the beets and sweet roasted red peppers surrounding it on the plate threatened to throw the whole dish off balance.
Still, the kitchen's talent with seafood kept impressing. Fresh local anchovies came with a zesty lemon pesto that sparked off their metallic, flinty flavor. Hood canal savory clams on the half shell were chewier than oysters, and brinier too, with even more of the bracing flavor of the sea. Linguine with clams had a rich, buttery sauce and expertly cooked pasta. The only dish I didn't like was the whole Monterey Bay sardines. The little fish were well-cooked, and the server did a nimble job of deboning the lot of them at the table, but the cumin-heavy spice rub jarred with the sardines' natural fishiness.
Because of the kitchen's record, I didn't stray far from the ocean. Though the menu also has a pulled-pork sandwich and braised short ribs, ordering them seemed beside the point, like ordering fish at a steakhouse. Dessert brought bistro items like chocolate pot du crème and crème brûlée along with funnel cake, liberally anointed with real whipped cream and fresh berries. The funnel cake was a deep-fried delight on the edges, but unfortunately doughy and undercooked in the middle.
To drink, a short list of beer and wines on tap. I wanted a few more adventurous whites to play off the fish — it doesn't go much beyond Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay — but at $27 for a three-glass carafe, I also wasn't doing much complaining.
Undercooked funnel cake and beet overload aside, the most objectionable thing about the restaurant was the service, which was so aggressively friendly that it strayed into intrusive. Waiters inserted themselves into and hijacked conversations more than once, grinding them to a halt. It seemed to be a misplaced use of the friendly, small-town attitude of Bernal Heights, and the spot has already become a gathering point for the close-knit neighborhood. The restaurant was full on both visits, and the servers greeted many of the patrons by name. But all this extroversion can also be off-putting to outsiders, especially when dishes hover around $20 a plate. Great seafood should never be cheap, but with a scale-down of portions and prices and a recalibration of server friendliness, Red Hill Station could become that rare breed: a neighborhood restaurant that is also a destination.