Popular, no reservation seafood option in San Francisco
From the moment I saw Anthony Bourdain eat here, I wanted to do the same. On a very hot Saturday morning, I clambered over at least four unconscious, neanderthal drunks on the pavements leading up to Polk St and I had to queue for over an hour in the baking sun in order to get a seat, but I felt very lucky when I finally got to my seat. The service was fast and furious to begin with and like most places in San Francisco, it is actually odd to not have a drink in the hand, even if at 10am at a place like this, so pretty soon all diners said, “Why not?!”. I wouldn’t say the seafood was at the Japanese level, but it was certainly very good and it was a quality experience overall. $68 is a lot of money for some small plates and house wine, but I went overboard deliberately, knowing I would not be able to come in every day, in honour of Anthony Bourdain and toasted as such on a facetime call to my associate Mr Bainbridge at the point of having the wine. My other glass was given to the awesome chap (pictured) that served me throughout and I loved this experience all round in this cosy gem of a place.
Swan Oyster Depot has been around since the 80s and was prized long before I clapped eyes on it from seeing one of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episodes. The staff were too busy to have any in-depth conversation with about the food, but I was pleased with my choices and found the following:
The crab-back with crab fat and butter broth was indeed an original and soothingly good crab dish. Still not one of my absolute favourite flavours funnily enough (think of the difference between brown and white crab meat if this applies) but I loved the presentation and use of the sourdough to soak it up. If there was an upgrade I could think of to this dish, it would be to have more upscale sourdough (noticeably plain and average in comparison to sourdough with better crunch to the crust and more ‘Swiss-cheese’ effect in the dough.
The staff told me that the salmon and rainbow trout are farmed in Idaho and smoked prior to arrival at Swan Oyster Depot. To my surprise, there wasn’t any wild-caught salmon or fish, but the smokiness was very good indeed. Clam chowder (a thickened soup using chopped clams and cream) is not my favourite flavour I have to be honest, but I wanted to try and see how this version was and it was a better quality to most other versions tried – the dairy not too dominant, subtle clam flavour and evidently a good stock as well.
The prawns were on another level I am pleased to say. Such huge prawns had inherent sweetness and although I am a sauce fiend, the cocktail sauce here was the very best I have ever tasted. A fresh mayonnaise had the ingenious additives of sweet relish, finely chopped egg, a small quantity of chopped olive (and ketchup naturally) and combined to make an absolute symphony of a cocktail sauce. The masterstroke within it all, I think, was the finely chopped egg for the additional richness of the egg-based mayonnaise in the first place, but also gave an even more luxurious velvety feel to the texture. Heston Blumenthal also reportedly does what I do which is to eat spoonfuls of prawn cocktail from the fridge when no one is looking, day or night, so I am a huge prawn cocktail fan and appreciate it where it is done very well and I enjoy making my own from scratch whenever I can. The current UK supermarket lead on this, by the way, is actually Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference prawn cocktail in my view – they add a drop of Madeira in the sauce as the winning stroke, closely followed behind, by the sweetness of Marks and Spencer’s prawns in cocktail sauce (sorry Waitrose, you need to work on yours).
Back to the Swan Oyster Depot and sea urchins were a must and again the presentation was great, served in their spikey, spherical shell and on ice. A creamy-smooth urchin was enjoyed here and was happily washed down with the sauvignon blanc that I toasted with the fabulous Kevin, one of the Sancimino Brothers who now own the restaurant, taking over from the Lausten Family. I would love to come back, and next time, with Mr Bainbridge in person.
Food Grade: 67%
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