San Francisco Chronicle Magazine | originally published: May 1, 2005

A Seafood Bounty: Cafe Maritime uses East Coast inspiration at casual Marina spot
By Michael Bauer, Restaurant Critic

An elderly man in a Perry Como sweater sat at the table at Cafe Maritime, head down, hands in his lap, clicking off names of seafaring creatures -- Chilean sea bass, cod, king crab, monkfish -- as his wife tucked her credit card into the folder, ignoring his monotone litany.

I couldn't figure out what was going on, but I was beginning to wonder if I was witnessing a new rare disease -- culinary Tourette's, maybe?

My curiosity vanished as I forked into the Pernod prawns, interlocked like a pinwheel over steamed bok choy and a creamy ginger sauce ($8.50) and stole spoonfuls of my companion's creamy thick New England seafood chowder loaded with chunks of clams ($6.50) tasting of a clean ocean mist.

When I paid the bill at the end of my meal, I understood the man's behavior. Tucked into the check was a wallet-size trifold Seafood Watch card from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, listing fish that are in plentiful supply and are fine to consume, and those that are being over-fished and are best avoided.

This grassroots activism is an admirable and growing cause, and it's encouraging to see small places like Cafe Maritime, a year-old restaurant on Lombard Street, trying to be good environmental citizens while meeting the needs of the dining public and keeping prices in line.

That alone says a lot about this 50-seat cafe, which is fashioned after an East Coast seafood shack. Owner Mark Mitcheltree began working at Eulipia restaurant in San Jose to support himself while earning a Master's degree in business at San Jose State. When he graduated in 1992, he decided to stay in the restaurant business and wound up working there for 11 years with the idea of opening his own place. It took three years to find the spot on Lombard, where he's created an intimate but casual destination with the help of designer John Lum.

The front of the space is dominated by a boat-shaped bar for drinking or dining. A curved banquette in the rear follows the undulating lines of a screen made of clear plastic tubing that simulates a wave and shimmers in the filtered back lights from the kitchen.

The western wall is dominated by a series of soft seascape murals by John Lund that reminded an East Coast friend of Chesapeake Bay. The soothing dusty blue and gold colors are echoed in the entire space and on the handsome wainscoting below the artwork. Metal tabletops reinforce the casual, stylish nature of the place.

Chef Pepe Pumacayo has created a straightforward one-page menu dominated by selections from the shellfish bar. Those are supplemented by three salads, five appetizers, nine seafood dishes and two meat-based combinations. Prices are reasonable; main courses range from $13.50 to $19.50.

The preparations often belie the restaurant's pristine look; the kitchen has an eye for presentation. Pieces of sauteed trout ($16), stacked and topped with the tail jutting up like a sculpture, sit atop a biscuit-colored puree of white beans surrounded by a roasted tomato and cilantro sauce with swirls of green onion oil.

The chef arranges California sea bass ($17.50) on an island of saffron- scented Israeli couscous, surrounded by a sun-dried tomato beurre blanc. Grilled wild salmon ($19) peeks out from under a lacy tangle of herbs, all resting on a soft cushion of polenta and surrounded by rings of red and green pepper sauce. While the flavor of the dressing on the herbs and sauce was a bit sweet for my taste, the salmon was lovely.

Pumacayo has mastered simple preparations, too. Grilled snapper ($15) needs nothing more than the fingerling potatoes and remoulade to make it special.

Even though the chef has worked mainly on the West Coast at places such as Blackhawk Grill in Danville and Ondine in Sausalito, with a diversion through Dallas for a few years, he produces a pleasant version of the expected lobster roll. It's a butter-griddled bun topped with a lobster salad; while it tastes fresh, it's more like a luncheon dish than anything I normally crave at night. I much preferred the Maritime house salad ($7.50) with green beans, avocado and wedges of fingerling potatoes, accompanied by a crouton heaped with a mound of lobster.

Mussels ($9.50), listed in the appetizer section, could easily be a main course, especially if paired with the crisp Kennebec fries ($4). The mussels, in their shells, are heaped in a white ceramic bowl with coins of linguica sausage flecked with herbs, garlic and a smoky broth of Anchor Steam beer. Another starter, crisp-seared crab cakes ($11) is set atop roasted corn salsa and a Dijon mustard-avocado dip, but the salty-sweet notes of the seafood dominate.

I longed to try the seafood platter ($35/$65), but I saved that for my fourth and final visit, only to discover that the only item available was the littleneck clams -- no oysters, shrimp, lobster or crab. That seems to be a major faux pas at a restaurant that builds a menu around raw-bar offerings.

A few dishes taste as if they had been prepared by a distracted cook; the grilled squid ($8.50), stuffed with papery sheets of undercooked chard, spent too long on the fire and turned unappetizingly rubbery. A pleasant smoked tomato sauce and a lime creme fraiche would have made the dish soar if the seafood were properly cooked.

Rock shrimp linguine ($15) tasted as if it had been prepared without any salt -- and because there's only pepper on the table, diners have to ask for a shaker. Getting a waiter's attention can be a problem, depending on the night. On one visit there was only one server, and it wasn't until she was juggling about 10 tables that she called the owner at home for reinforcements. It feels like a seat-of-the-pants operation, which made it doubly chaotic one night when there were two rambunctious children getting in the way of the harried servers.

That evening made me ponder the problems of children in restaurants. Two young girls at a nearby table progressed from high-pitched whines that sounded like Marge Simpson after a hit of helium to bunny-hopping around the room to activate the red lights on their sneakers. One grabbed a plate and started dancing in the middle of the restaurant, while the other climbed up on a barstool between two customers and ordered milk from the bartender. The mother shouted from across the room that it was OK to give her a glass. Waiters tried to maneuver around them as they unfurled a string of toilet paper they had nabbed in the bathroom.

Only the parents seemed oblivious to their performance. As one couple got up to leave, they pulled the owner aside to let them know that they enjoyed the food, but not the children.

Mitcheltree is trying to create a restaurant that covers all bases, appealing both to families and to late- night diners (he stays open until 1 a. m.). Yet disruptive children become a problem for the restaurant when they affect the dining experience of others.

For me, the children's activity diverted attention from my repetitive squeals of delight at I spooned into Mark's Mom's Coconut Cream Pie ($6.50) with billows of soft meringue, a firm buttery crust and cool filling as rich as pot de creme. It was so good the adjectives just tumbled out between bites -- rich, creamy, smooth, buttery, cool. Maybe I've developed my own case of culinary Tourette's, but I have no desire to find a cure.

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Seafood-appropriate wines fill list

A good wine list will give an astute diner strong clues as to what to expect from the menu. The selection at Cafe Maritime, appropriately, shouts seafood.

While the list features only 32 labels -- 10 offered by the glass -- the choices are excellent. Most of the wines have a crisp acidity and low oak, which helps them sparkle with the fish-based menu.

The whites are particularly strong, including a dry Chenin Blanc, a crisp New Zealand Sauvigon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Roussanne and Viognier.

Two Chardonnays on the list -- 2002 Andretti Selections ($24) and 2002 Miner Wild Yeast ($75) -- are excellent with Pepe Pumacayo's preparations, many of which are accented with beurre blanc and other sauces.

Also fitting with the menu, about half the reds are Pinot Noir, ranging from the 2002 Ramsay North Coast Pinot Noir ($32) to 2000 Dujac Fils et Pere Morey-Saint-Denis ($76).

However, prices tend toward the high side, with markups of some wines hovering at three times wholesale, making them more expensive than at other restaurants of this caliber.

Cafe Maritime also has a full bar, with specialty cocktails ($8) that include a Brandy Crusta, with cognac, Cointreau and limoncello; and a Man Overboard, with spiced rum, coconut rum, Tuaca and pineapple juice. The dessert menu also features fortified coffees, scotch, cognac, ports and other drinks, such as Metaxa 7 Star Brandy from Greece ($6).

If you bring your own wine, corkage is $13.

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Michael Bauer is The Chronicle's restaurant critic. E-mail him at mbauer@sfchronicle.com.

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