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Fish in Their Variety
Probably the most frequent question asked us by those who come to San Francisco is: "Where can we get the best fish?" With San Francisco's wonderful natural advantages as a fish market one is sometimes surprised that more attention is not given to preparing fish as a specialty. But one restaurant in the city deals exclusively with sea food, and even there one is astonished at an overlooked opportunity.
Darbee & Immel have catered to San Francisco in oysters for many years and after the fire they opened the Shell Fish Grotto, in O'Farrell street, between Powell and Mason streets, and this is one of the very few distinctive fish restaurants of the country. It is when one considers the possibilities that a shock comes from the environing decorations. White and gold pillars, with twining ivy reaching to the old gold and rose mural and ceiling embellishments seem out of place in a restaurant that is devoted entirely to catering to lovers of fish. Nothing in the place indicates its character except the big lobster in front of the building. Not even so much as a picture to bring a sentiment of the ocean to the mind.
We are going to take a liberty, and possibly Darbee & Immel may call it an impertinence, and give them a bit of advice. It costs them nothing consequently they can act on it or not and it will make no difference. This is our suggestion:
Change the interior of the place entirely by having around the walls a series of large glass aquaria, with as many different kinds of fish swimming about as it is possible to get; something on the order of the interior of the aquarium in Battery Park in New York. Paint the ceiling to represent the surface of the water as seen from below. Have seaweed and kelp in place of ivy, and a fish net or two caught up in the corners of the room, with here and there a starfish or a crab - not too many, for profuseness in this sort of decoration is an abomination. Then you will have a restaurant that will be talked about wherever people sit at meat. But to get back to our talk about fish, and where to get it prepared and cooked the best. We must say that the finest fish we have eaten in San Francisco was not in the high-priced restaurants at all, but in a little, dingy back room, down at Fishermen's Wharf, where there was sand on the floor and all the sounds of the kitchen were audible in the dining room. The place was patronized almost solely by the Italian fishermen who not only know how to catch a fish but how it ought to be cooked. One may always rest assured that when he gets a fish in one of the Italian restaurants it is perfectly fresh, for there are two things that an Italian demands in eating, and they are fresh fish and fresh vegetables.
At the Gianduja at Union and Stockton streets, one is certain to get fish cooked well and that it is perfectly fresh. The variety is not so good as at the Shell Fish Grotto, but otherwise it is just as good in every respect. At the Grotto there is a wonderful variety but the quantity is at the minimum because there, too, they will have no fish that has been twenty-four hours out of the water.
One wonders how a full course dinner entirely of fish can be prepared, but if you will go to the Shell Fish Grotto you will find that it is done, and done well at that. Here you can get a good dinner for one dollar, or if you prefer it they have a Fish Dinner de Luxe for which they charge two dollars. Both are good, the latter having additional wines and delicacies.
Down in Washington street, just off Columbus avenue, is the Vesuvius, an Italian restaurant of low price, but excellent cooking. A specialty there is fish which is always brought fresh from the nearby Clay street market as ordered, consequently is perfect. When you give your order a messenger is dispatched to the market and usually he brings the fish alive and the chef prepares it in one of his many ways, for he is said to have more secrets about the cooking of fish than one would think it possible for one brain to contain. The trouble about this restaurant is that the rest of the menu does not come up to the fish standard, but if you desire a simple luncheon of fish there is no better place to get it.
There are three things in which an Easterner will be disappointed in San Francisco, and these are oysters. Pacific Coast oysters fail in size, flavor and cooking, when compared with the luscious bivalve of the Atlantic, so far as the ordinary forms of preparation is concerned. Even fancy dishes, such as Oysters Kirkpatrick, would be better if made of the eastern oyster, not what they call the eastern oyster here, for that is a misnomer, but the oysters that grow in the Atlantic Ocean.
Of the Pacific oysters the best is the Toke Point, that comes from Oregon. They are similar in size to the Blue Point, but lack the flavor. When, in a San Francisco restaurant, you are asked what sort of oyster you will have, and you see the familiar names on the menu card, remember that these are transplanted oysters, and have lost much of their flavor in the transplanting, or else they are oysters that have been shipped across the continent and have thereby lost their freshness.
The California oyster proper, is very small, and it has a peculiar coppery taste, which bon vivants declare adds to its piquancy. Instead of ordering these by the dozen you order them by the hundred, it being no difficult task to eat an hundred at a meal, especially when prepared in a pepper roast.
Everyone knows the staple ways of preparing oysters, and every chef looks upon the oyster as the source of new flavors in many dishes, but to our mind the best way we have found in San Francisco was at a little restaurant down in Washington street before the fire. It was the Buon Gusto. where they served fish and oysters better than anything else because the owners were the chefs, and they were from the island of Catalan, off the coast of Italy. Their specialty was called "Oysters a la Catalan," and their recipe, which is given, can be prepared excellently in a chafing dish:
Oysters a la Catalan
Take one tablespoonful of butter, two teaspoonfuls grated Edam or Parmesan cheese, four tablespoonfuls catsup, one-half teaspoonful Worcestershire sauce, two tablespoonfuls cream, meat of one good-sized crab cut fine and two dozen oysters. Put the cheese and butter into a double boiler and when melted smooth add the catsup and Worcestershire sauce. Mix well and add the cream and then the crab meat. When creamy and boiling hot drop in the oysters. As soon as the oysters are crinkled serve on hot buttered toast on hot plates.
In the days before the fire when you went to a restaurant and ordered fish or oysters the waiter invariably put before you either a plate of crab salad or a dish of shrimps, with which you were supposed to amuse yourself while the meal was being prepared. Shrimps and crabs were then so plentiful that their price was never considered. Under our new conditions these always appear on the bill when ordered, and if they be not ordered they do not appear for they now are made to increase the income.
To the uninitiated visitor the shrimps so served were always something of a mystery, and after a few futile efforts to get at the meat they generally gave it up as too much work for the little good derived. The Old Timer, however, cracked the shrimp's neck, pinched its tail, and out popped a delicious bonne bouche which added to the joy of the meal and increased the appetite. But there are many other ways of serving shrimps, and they are also much used to give flavor to certain fish sauces. One of the most delicious ways of preparing shrimp is what is known as "Shrimp Creole, a la Antoine," so named after the famous New Orleans Antoine by a chef in San Francisco who had regard for the New Orleans caterer. We doubt if it can be had anywhere in San Francisco now unless you are well enough known to have it prepared according to the recipe. This recipe, by the way, is a good one to use in a chafing dish supper. This is the way it was prepared at the old Pup restaurant, one of the noted restaurants before the fire and earthquake changed conditions:
Take three pints of unshelled shrimps and shell them, one-half pint of cream, two tablespoonfuls of butter, two tablespoonfuls of flour, two tablespoonfuls of catsup, one wine glass of sherry, paprika, chili powder and parsley. Brown the flour in the butter and add the milk until it is thickened. Color with the catsup and season with paprika and chili powder. Stir in the sherry and make a pink cream which is to be mixed through the shrimps and not cooked. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with squares of toast or crackers.