SF weekly | originally published: July 7, 2004

Fishing Again
Charmed by a thoughtful neighborhood restaurant celebrating seafood and spirits

Something about the fresh, clean facade of Café Maritime pleased me weeks before I walked into it. It seemed as inviting as could be, like your dream of a little fish place near the shore in some French seaside village or on a rocky New England island. After a couple of delightful dinners, I continue to be charmed by it, thereby giving the lie to the clichés "You can't tell a book by its cover" and "Beauty is only skin deep." But folks also say, "Looks aren't everything," and though I like the aesthetics of Café Maritime's interior -- which blends certain comforting allusions to the past (crisp, clean wainscoted walls; a wooden bar reminiscent of a boat) with modernistic elements (a curving, wavelike banquette backed by a silvery, sculptural metal wall) -- what I'm really there for is the food.

And the drink. At dinner, with my mom and her longtime friend Minette (they met in Paris when they were in their 20s, and my mother cemented the friendship by introducing Minette to her eventual husband), who lives just a couple of blocks away from the restaurant, I'm intrigued by an old-fashioned cocktail on the specialty list called the Brandy Crusta: cognac, Cointreau, limoncello, fresh lemon juice, and aromatic bitters. Yum. Minette gets an icy martini, and my mom goes nuts and joins us with a Mojito. Suitably fortified, we peruse the short but sweet menu, which includes a shellfish bar, half a dozen appetizers, five entrees, and a couple of vegetable sides. My mom is sad that the billboarded soft-shell crabs ("mid-May to mid-September") aren't available tonight; our affable server tells us that they arrived atypically frozen from the supplier that day, and were summarily sent back. Minette has already chosen the crab cakes that I know my mother had her eye on, but Mom says, gamely, that she'll try the grilled stuffed squid -- "I don't think I've ever had stuffed squid."

When it comes, she's glad she did: The lightly charred, tender squid is stuffed with well-seasoned chopped chard, and the smoke imparted by the grill rhymes with its smoked tomato sauce. The flavors of the grill are nicely set off by a bit of lime crème fraîche. The fragile, thin crab cakes -- made almost entirely of flakes of Dungeness crab held together with determination and a few bread crumbs -- are also thoughtfully partnered, with sprigs of peppery watercress, a bright Meyer lemon aioli, and tangy beet salad.

My own chilled half Maine lobster is meaty enough that I don't mind sharing it. We clean our plates -- which is not at all habitual with me -- and I proceed to do the same with my grilled local king salmon, wild and sweet, in a sharp and sweet tangerine vinaigrette with bright green asparagus spears and fat coral-colored mussels. It's a handsome, artistically conceived plate of food that I demolish. My mom is less thrilled with her lobster roll; lobster, to her, means a whole steamed beast that she can deconstruct at leisure, tracking down every shred of the silken ivory flesh. (I'm fairly sure that Café Maritime doesn't offer the iconic dish because it wants to keep its prices neighborly; entrees run from $12.50, for shrimp linguine, to $17, for hanger steak.) Anyway, even though I think the lobster roll is quite good (it comes on a nice top-slit bakery bun rather than a hot dog bun, as it does at many lobster shacks), to my mom it's just lobster salad, where the mayonnaise obscures the taste of the main(e) event. She'd prefer the other kind of lobster roll -- lobster chunks bathed in butter. She does praise the "Kennebec fries" (small, almost as thin as potato chips, and sprinkled with parsley) and the crisp house-made coleslaw it comes with. We all love Minette's dish, an impeccably cooked hunk of Alaskan halibut napped in a pearly roasted garlic sauce, sided with mildly bitter broccoli rabe dressed with garlic, chiles, and lemon. (I see local kitchen goddess Marion Cunningham sitting on the banquette on the other side of the room, dining with two men. I wonder if she's eating as well as we are. I hope so.)

The celebratory mood continues through dessert, a fragrant peach and blueberry crisp with vanilla ice cream and an exquisitely shaky panna cotta dressed with chopped nectarines and shredded mint. I'm slightly disappointed with my cheese plate: A single wedge of Cowgirl Creamery's Mount Tam seems a bit boring, even niggardly, at $7.50, no matter how nicely garnished with fruit. Still, this has been one completely swell dinner.

I run into Sura at a screening of Fahrenheit 9/11, after which, we both agree, we need a drink. (I knew Bush was, shall we say, not bright, but after a couple of hours of viewing his venal visage, along with those of his cohorts-cum-handlers, I'm newly appalled. My fear is that exactly the kind of people who need to see this movie -- let's start with, oh, Republicans -- won't.) It's an hour or so before Café Maritime opens, so we stroll over to SFMOMA and see the "Pop!" show, which is full of art to make us hungry: There's a stack of Andy Warhol's cardboard canned-goods boxes right at the entrance, across from a Robert Arneson six-pack of beer cast in ceramic, and we stroll by Wayne Thiebaud's iconic baked goods and an Arneson masterpiece called Smorgy-Bob the Cook (a happy pottery chef presiding over a pottery table overflowing with pottery dishes well-filled with pottery food), until we exit past David Hockney's Seated Woman Being Served Tea by a Standing Companion, George Segal's Hot Dog Stand, and a Last Supper called Blue Plate Special by Bruce Conner. I guess I'm hungry, too.

I'm happy to be back at Café Maritime, contemplating another Brandy Crusta (Sura gets an apple martini with a dot of purple Chambord at its base, an extra treat added by the thoughtful bartender/server when Sura says she'd like a drink on the sweet side), but I'm slightly miffed that the menu is completely unchanged. Soft-shell crabs are again unavailable (no explanation offered this time), and the only two entrees I haven't already tried are the shrimp linguine -- the last ingredient in its description, "roasted tomatoes, garlic, basil, & orange," adds a bit of a fillip, but not enough to entice us -- and the hanger steak, which I figure is only there for the seafood-haters. (My father, not a hater but not much of an enthusiast, would be pretty much out of luck: Everything else on the menu is fishy. Even the spring vegetable salad comes with lobster salad toast.) We decide to concentrate on the starters.

And we start splendidly with the smaller of the two seafood platters. We get nine oysters (three each of the three varieties on offer: Hog Island, Malpeque, and Kumamoto); three littleneck clams; three mussels; two jumbo heads-on prawns in the shell; and a chilled half lobster (instead, we're told, of the usual Dungeness crab, which the kitchen is out of). The icy seaweed-draped platter comes with little cups of cocktail sauce, a very good shallot vinaigrette, and lots of lemon wedges. The shellfish is fresh and briny, just what it should be. (My only quibble: The three types of oysters, among my favorites, are similar, small and easily downed; a bigger, more assertive variety would've been a welcome contrast.) We have an excellent time, cracking and dipping and slurping.

Then come three more starters: creamy New England seafood chowder, freighted with chunks of potato and many cubes of good, smoky bacon as well as salmon, tiny shrimp, and clams; three lightly grilled sea scallops atop white beans, ringed with tomatillo salsa verde, contrasting in color as well as flavor; and a big bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels, steamed in Anchor Steam beer and helped along with bits of linguiça, garlic, tomatoes, and shredded arugula, and further encouraged by a glass of Alsatian pinot gris I choose from Café Maritime's compact (15 whites, 15 reds and rosés, three "bubbles") but well-selected wine list. We eavesdrop on one of the owners, chatting with a young family from the neighborhood whose two tots enjoyed pasta with butter made specially for them while their parents raved about their mussels and halibut; he's recommending other favorite local restaurants, including A16 and Emporio Rulli.

The dessert list offers the same four options as before: I forgo another perfect panna cotta to try the chocolate brownie, an unusually light version like a flourless chocolate cake, with butterscotch sauce and a ball of coffee ice cream that Sura finishes for me, despite her pleasure with her own peach crisp. The dessert list is loaded with other after-dinner temptations, however: ports and dessert wines, cognacs, single malts, grappas, and alcohol-and-whipped-cream-enhanced coffee drinks. (I've since managed to unearth a couple more Café Maritime menus, which bear few changes. On the dinner one, the only difference is a substitute of sardines for the scallops in the starter, with the same accompaniments of white beans and salsa verde. But I'm intrigued by the dessert offerings of coconut cream pie, a hot fudge sundae, and a root beer float -- the sorts of things we'd seen in the Thiebaud paintings. There's even a blue-plate special offered among Café Maritime's bargain-priced offerings for its "Industry Hour" from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., which, we note, is two hours and not designed to encourage much industry the day after.)

When we leave, we overhear the owner say he's waiting for Michael Bauer to come in. "I just want him to taste my food!" he says fiercely. We hope he enjoys his dinner as much as we did ours.

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