Marina Times - June 2004

"The Hungry Palate" Column
By Susan Dyer Reynolds, Food/Wine Editor

Two new dinner spots have quietly opened in the Marina over the past few months - one offering a nice selection of reasonably priced seafood on the oft-overlooked Lombard Street, the other nestled away in a chic little wine bar on Steiner's bustling Restaurant Row.

Taking up residence at 2417 Lombard Street in the old digs of the local-favorite boys' bar, Fox and Fiddle, Cafe Maritime opened its doors with little fanfare other than a banner hanging above the entrance that proclaims, "We're Open!" For anyone who spent time at Fox and Fiddle, the interior will be almost unrecognizable - what once was a dark, somewhat dank space has been transformed by architect John Lum into a charming, well-lit eatery. The kitchen, once a Denny's-style visual blight, is nicely hidden behind a decorative screen made of clear plastic hose that creates a shimmery watery effect. Everything - even the bar and the bathrooms - have been given a major facelift. I must say, as a fan of the Fox, I felt a little sad about the changes, but as a restaurant critic, I can't help but applaud them.

As the name suggests, Cafe Maritime offers a menu that is 99% seafood (the exception being a tasty grilled hanger steak) and though the place is compact, it has enough variety to satisfy most seafood lovers. The shellfish bar features oysters on the half-shell - when I visited, the selection offered two of my favorites, the sea-salty fresh Hog Island Sweetwater and the creamy, petite Kumamoto. Prices are also good, ranging from $1.75 to $2 per oyster. One of the best-kept secrets in the Marina is the Industry Hour. Geared toward folks who work those vampire hours in the restaurant business, it offers 12 Hog Island oysters for $13 from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. as well as some drink specials.

The shellfish bar also offers my favorite mollusk on the half-shell - Eastern littleneck clams - for $1.50 apiece. For three or more people, I suggest starting with the seafood platter, which features a variety of oysters, clams, mussels and dazzling giant Madagascar prawns topped off with half a chilled Dungeness crab ($35). If you decide on the large platter ($60), they'll add a chilled half Maine lobster. The Madagascar prawns, flown in fresh daily and served shell-on, are not only visually spectacular, they are also without doubt the sweetest and tastiest giant prawns I've eaten in recent memory.

Chef Michael Selvera worked at some of the best restaurants in The City before coming to Cafe Maritime, including Hawthorne Lane, Postrio, Town Hall, Yabbie's Coastal Grill, and Jeremiah Tower's Stars. His entrees run the gamut from New England classics like the lobster roll ($15) to more West Coast-minded dishes such as grilled local king salmon served with asparagus and dressed in tangerine mussel vinaigrette ($14.50). For my money, I like the lobster roll, something I haven't seen on many menus since the last time I visited my Aunt June in Rhode Island. Traditionally, lobster rolls are made with six ounces of Maine lobster chunks, mayonnaise and celery salt tucked into a soft hot-dog style bun. The buns, not easily obtainable on the West Coast, have flat, crustless sides that are perfect for slathering with butter and toasting golden brown. Selvera and Cafe Maritime owner Mark Mitcheltree did their research and came up with a proper bun from the Metropolitan Baking Company. Selvera adds his own signature to the lobster roll - chopped onions, celery, a bit of lemon and orange juice, and some chopped tarragon. I enjoyed his version, though I thought the tarragon, a strong herb to begin with, was a bit too prevalent. East Coasters, who might complain that the lobster roll is too small, should keep in mind that a 6-ounce lobster roll in California would cost around $30. The Cafe Maritime lobster roll is served with a generous pile of thin crispy Kennebec fries and house-made coleslaw, which should fill you up if the lobster roll doesn't.

I also liked the spring vegetable salad, which is dressed in sherry vinaigrette and served with lobster salad toast. At $7, this is the best deal on the menu. Chock full of seasonal veggies all cooked to perfection, it's different than the run-of-the-mill, overpriced "house greens" found on most restaurant menus.

Because the availability of seafood at Cafe Maritime is subject to season, weather and fishing, you won't find the same thing on the menu every time. Items that are coming into season now, like soft shell crab and Copper River king salmon, are listed on the menu along with expected dates of arrival, a nice way of keeping customers informed.

The biggest challenge facing Cafe Maritime is its location on Lombard Street. While stellar restaurants like Boboquivari's, Feng Shui and Zushi-Puzzle have helped to make Lombard a more popular dining destination, the street still lacks the foot traffic of nearby Chestnut, Union and Fillmore streets. Anyone who loves fresh seafood should make an effort to walk those extra couple of blocks to Cafe Maritime, not to mention the fact that they have a well-stocked bar and serve food until 1 a.m., something that should appeal to hungry night owls looking for upscale food rather than the usual greasy wee-hour fare. Take some good friends, order a few dozen oysters and a crisp bottle of Sancerre to wash them down, and you'll suddenly forget all about the busy street outside.

Not-to-miss-dish: The lobster roll is a no-brainer, but start off with the spring vegetable salad.

Cafe Maritime: 2417 Lombard Street (between Scott and Divisadero). Open for dinner nightly 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Call (415) 885-2530 for more information.

Located Next to the King Edward Hotel > Dinner Nightly > Sunday Brunch