I stopped being a meat person my freshman year of college. Out of a vague sense of political responsibility and a masochistic curiosity about what life without sausage would be like--a tall order from a German American from the Midwest--I committed myself to vegetarianism.
Over the next nine months I gained ten pounds by subsisting on salads and grilled-cheese sandwiches from the student cafeteria, supplemented with pizza, beans and rice, and falafel. That summer I worked as a dishwasher at a little bistro next to college, and began eating some of the most innovative, well-prepared food that Minnesota had to offer. I soon converted to foodieism.
From those vegetarian days, though, I've kept a distrust of large slabs of meat. My ideal entrée is a small portion of perfectly cooked meat surrounded by lots of vegetables and a few well-seasoned starches. I love the flavor of meat more than the product itself.
But clearly many people out there don't feel the same way. Now that the Zone diet is in and the Mediterranean diet is out, we Californians are rediscovering the pleasures of the flesh. This latest shift meatward may be due to the correlation between economic security and protein consumption: when life looks a bit shaky, everyone wants to throw a chicken in the stew pot.
Or pull a crab from the crab pot, as the case may be. Last week, I heeded the advice of a few readers--and a woman on the elevator--and visited the Dead Fish, a crab house and prime rib restaurant near the Carquinez Bridge. Turns out there is truth in advertising: the crab and prime rib, the two specialties trumpeted on the restaurant's sign, are the best things on the menu. Everything else is a little spotty.
The Dead Fish is set on a ridge overlooking the Carquinez Straits. Its owners have a penchant for opening restaurants in prime locations--Calzone's and the Stinking Rose face each other across Columbus Street in San Francisco's North Beach, and the Crab House is located on tourist-heavy Pier 39. The Dead Fish, at nearly two years old, is the newest member of the chain. If the name is any indication, the owners also have a sense of humor.
The restaurant's interior is dramatic: leopard-print wall-to-wall carpeting, rose-tinted lights, and forest-green walls covered with nautical memorabilia and pictures of celebrities clipped from magazines. Most diners can sit along the large swath of windows facing the straits or tuck themselves into stuffed-seat booths. When night falls and the Carquinez Bridge lights up, the view gets more romantic.
Chef and co-owner Andrea Froncillo hails from Naples. He spent ten years cooking around the world on cruise ships before settling in the Bay Area in the early '80s. His menu is straightforward seafood with a strong Italian bias and touches of contemporary California.
Our platter of iron-skillet-roasted mussels ($9.95), a dish that originated in San Francisco several years ago, is among the latter. Plump, unadorned mussels are served on a large skillet, with a miniature skillet of melted garlic butter in the center. The server pours a cruet of soy and white wine sauce over the mussels after placing the pan on the table, but the sauce isn't half as satisfying as the butter. Also available roasted are freshwater shrimp ($12.95) and a mixed skillet of mussels, shrimp, and crab ($28.95).
Other crab starters include crab chowder, crab cakes, and crab cocktail. Shying away from crab for both appetizer and entrée, I tried the popcorn calamari, accompanied by a ramekin of ketchup for dipping. The rubbery calamari ($7.95), breaded and deep-fried, tasted like it had made a nonstop trip from freezer to fryer. We fared better with the salads. Green salad ($4.95), necessary as a counterpart to the meat, fish, and shellfish, contained red lettuce mixed with a sweet ginger vinaigrette. Our caesar salad ($7.95), though vinegary with a suspicious taste of bottled dressing, was attractive. Pale, whole romaine leaves from the heart of the head are stacked on a long oval plate and sprinkled with croutons and cheese. It's enough for two--and the chicken caesar and crab caesar are apt choices for lunch or light dinners.
Most of the entrées we tried were uninspired. The fish was cooked properly every time, but the dishes lacked vigor and complexity, and the sides were dreary. For example, pan-roasted Chilean Sea Bass ($16.95) was served over orzo--small, barley-shaped pasta --with dry, bland, roasted green peppers, onions, and eggplant. There was no seasoning besides salt and pepper, and no sauce to bring the flavors together. Tilapia ($12.95), another "recently demised fish of the day," as the menu describes it, came dressed with a barely discernible soy-ginger glaze. It was accompanied by orzo and a few sautéed vegetables. Same problem.
I wouldn't have minded the Dead Fish Stew ($21.95), a crab cioppino over spaghetti, but I wasn't sure it made the best stew. Two large crab legs and a few calamari, mussels, and prawns--all tender and sweet--were smothered in a tangy marinara sauce that overwhelmed them. Entrées we didn't try included a range of Italian pasta dishes featuring shellfish, a couple of sandwiches, and a number of sides.
But I could see how two of the restaurant's signature dishes could lure folks in. You have to love crab to order the whole Killer Crab ($29.95), served with "secret garlic sauce." Merely fond of crab, I tried a substantial half order ($16.95), which consisted of four meaty Dungeness crab legs and one large claw roasted on a cast-iron skillet. Crab and skillet were both coated with a thin layer of salty, garlic-infused oil for rubbing on the delicate, moist meat. Crab addicts can purchase tickets ahead of time for a monthly Crab Feast, which includes garlic noodles, caesar salad, and garlic bread for the same price as the normal full-sized entrée.
My fellow diners and I also had to try the Slab ($29.95), reported to "scare women and small children." The Slab is a two-and-a-half-pound chunk of prime (USDA prime, that is) rib served on a humongous platter with a generous dollop of garlic mashed potatoes. One very hefty, very hungry person could demolish the Slab, but we found it to be more than enough for two pretty hungry, not-very-hefty humans. It was seasoned just right and served a perfect medium rare, with only a thin skin of fat surrounding the cut. We pulled the pink flesh away with our forks and dipped it by turns in a mushroomy au jus sauce and a potent mixture of horseradish and sour cream.
Desserts were similarly uneven, but pleasant overall. On our first visit we ordered the cheesecake of the month, chocolate almond. The flavor in the cream cheese got a little lost amid the chocolate and caramel, but the cake had a pleasing taste. A tropical fruit tiramisu ($4.95) featured layers of rum-soaked cake, mango puree, and whipped cream atop squiggles of mango and raspberry coulis.
We hated the superdense, grainy chocolate cake ($4.95). "It tastes like a block of cocoa, not like a dish," said the chocoholic who ordered it and still couldn't eat more than a few bites. In contrast, everyone enjoyed the torta alla nonna, or "grandmother' s torte" ($4.95), a wedge of flaky pastry filled with a tart lemon custard. It was served on a plate drizzled with an equally tart, creamy lemon zabaglione.
The service was attentive and relaxed, if not always slick. Our first night's server was young and obviously new to the trade. He hit all his marks, though, recovering smoothly after a chivalrous attempt to tie a crab bib around a female friend's neck was tartly rebuffed. I, of course, had to struggle alone to don my bib --I learned long ago that soliciting chivalry from other men could get me in trouble. The bussers were quick on the draw with dishes and water. I was relieved by the appearance of a very hot, wet handtowel after our entrées were cleared.
The wine list has a broad selection of wines from major-label California vintners, with a few interesting French and Italian vintages thrown in. The markup is substantial--about two hundred percent over retail--but many of the bottles are in the low to mid twenties, and ten wines are available by the glass. Spirit lovers can choose from a number of house cocktails such as the Fish Breath (tequila, Midori, and orange juice) and the Crabby Mood (vodka, peach schnapps, and cranberry).
Consider the restaurant's bar a destination in itself. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (till midnight on weekends), the bar brings in locals for live music Thursday through Sunday (visit www. thedeadfish.com for a schedule of performers). Five sandwiches and salads are added to the existing menu for lunch on weekdays, and a second set of five items are offered on Saturday and Sunday for brunch.
Where does the name of the restaurant come from? According to a card placed on the table, the chef's nonna (grandmother) owned a restaurant in Naples. Nonna would make phenomenal meals with the catch of the day, but when asked what she was serving, she' d shrug her shoulders and reply, "It's a dead fish!" If dead fish--or more specifically, dead crustacean or cow--is high on your list of favorite things to eat, head to Crockett to dig in.
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