Friday, March 17, 2006

Feeling Crabby at Swan Oyster Depot

1517 Polk Street
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415)673-1101
Monday through Saturday 8am-5:30pm
Cash only

Swan Oyster Depot on Urbanspoon

Tried: March 2006

Even though Swan Oyster Depot has been a San Francisco institution since at least the '50's, I still had a difficult time researching in advance what would be best to sample there. Seafood, fine, but that covers a lot of territory, and I feared encountering Fisherman's Wharf syndrome-- tourist spot with adequate to mediocre seafood and clam chowder. Even the freshest seafood in the wrong hands, drowned in aggressive cocktail sauce or Louis dressing, can be dismally disappointing. Although the potential pitfalls are not completely absent at the Swan, I was pleased to find that the renowned seafood joint lived up to its reputation.

First tip: Wear machine-washable clothes, as you will undoubtedly get spattered with shellfish bits or juices, whether by your own hand, the adjacent diners squeezed in next to you along the narrow counter, or by the staff busily shucking, cracking, and flinging various seafood items as they prepare the food to be served or weigh amounts to go for neighborhood shoppers picking up fresh fish for dinner. Second tip: Skip the mounds of sauce presented in the large glass goblets that look more like ice cream sundae containers. Instead, take some of the lemon wedges in the bowl on the counter, as those are really the only condiments you need (although the homemade mignonette sauce is quite good with the oysters). Third tip: Check out the wine list. Despite appearances to the contrary, Swan Oyster Depot has a nice selection of white wines that match the seafood, including Pahlmeyer Chardonnay if you really feel like spluring, at $95 per bottle (given that it costs about $70-$80 if you can even find it at a wine store, not a bad deal). My favorites were the Muscadet and the Honig Sauvignon Blanc, much more affordable at $6/glass.

The two must-have items at the Swan are the fresh oysters on the half shell and the half (or whole) cracked crab. The oysters were plump, briny, and tasted like the ocean. I also appreciated that they were expertly shucked, with no shell bits to mar the experience. The crab was so meaty, fresh, and delicious that I polished off the entire half order in a matter of minutes.

The combination seafood salad, which consisted of shrimp and lump crab meat on a bed of chopped iceberg lettuce with a giant dollop of pink/orange dressing that looked to be either Louis or Thousand Island, seemed to be very popular among the other diners but held no special appeal for me. The clam chowder, while thankfully not the gloppy thick variety found at most non New England seafood places, contained no clam, no sign of any salt cured pork, and the liquid, although decent in taste, had bits of curdled cream floating in it.

Surprisingly, the restaurant also serves raw seafood sashimi style, complete with soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger. I would not bother with the tuna again, which was somewhat butchered in the slicing with some bloody veins still left on, but the raw scallops were spectacular. If you like sea urchin, they serve it fresh in the black spiny shell, with a spoon to scoop out the roe like a seafood mousse. The younger guys behind the counter are expert at cutting these shells, and presented the uni shining bright yellow in layers in the half-shell. The older gentleman who served us, however, did not look happy at the prospect of cutting one open, and ours consequently arrived somewhat mangled with bits of the outer shell mixed in.

Swan Oyster Depot is not as inexpensive as the inclusion of "Depot" in the name, or its fish market decor, might suggest. If you are hungry to sample the seafood, without veering into the large and more economical seafood salads, the price tag for two can run as high as $80-$100 with drinks.

Was it worth the forty-plus minutes of waiting in line? Depends on how much you like fresh shellfish. I'm thinking that next time I'll go at 8am when they open to avoid the line.

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