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Bringing the Ocean to You
by Sarah Sung on Nov 18, 2004
Chances are you've only driven past Café Maritime, zooming down Lombard en route to or from the Golden Gate Bridge, but locals know it well and word is spreading fast. Café Maritime's quirky locale should not diminish its appeal. It is open late (until 1am, every night), is stocked with a full bar and an extensive wine list (both by the glass and by the bottle), and, best of all, it serves expertly prepared seafood -- simple and elegant at the same time.
Upon browsing the menu, I had a tough time choosing between the crab cakes, mussels, scallops, and grilled squid -- and that was just for as an appetizer! One thing I did know, I had to get the seafood chowder -- fast becoming Café Maritime's signature dish. Sensing my inner turmoil, owner Mark Mitcheltree suggested we order a bunch of appetizers. Brilliant. So, to get the maximum experience and taste the broadest assortment of preparations, we opted for five starters, crafting our meal in the trendy small-plate, family-style approach.
The trademark style of local chef Mark Selvera, who was head chef at Yabbie's Coastal Kitchen before coming here, is to emphasize simple preparation and fresh ingredients. Starting off with a cup of the seafood chowder ($4), we got our first clue that we were in for a treat. Each ingredient, from the fish, mussels, and clams to the bits of bacon and small slices of potato, maintained it's distinct flavor yet blended seamlessly with the others. Garnished with parsley and squid tentacles, this was no ordinary chowder; it was rich with seafood, perfectly creamy (not watery and not sludge-thick), and definitely not overpowered with potatoes.
The crispy celery bits in the Dungeness crab cakes ($12) were further evidence of the food's unwavering freshness. As a Marylander, I'm a diehard blue crab fanatic, but Selvera's preparation swayed me. Served with watercress, tomatoes, yellow beets, and aioli drizzled on top, it seemed like the ingredients in the crab cakes were thrown together within minutes of being served. Large flakes of meat, light on the starchy bread filler, and not overly fried -- made for three reasons why the crab cakes might have been my favorite.
Next came the scallops ($7), perfectly seared, almost caramelized, and set on a bed of sautéed onions. The grilled, stuffed squid ($7) is so far from deep-fried calamari that you wouldn't even know it was from the same mollusk family. Seared and tender, the squid was filled with chard, and served with a smoky tomato sauce and a chunk of lime crème fraiche.
The steamed PEI mussels ($7) bathed in Anchor Steam, linguica sausage, thin
slices of garlic, and oven-roasted cherry tomatoes were good, but I'd skip them next time since many other dishes were beyond compare. Our only entrée was blue fish with corn risotto, mushrooms, and tomatoes. The pairing worked well; the creamy risotto complimented the blue fish nicely and wasn't too heavy. For dessert, we shared a fruit crisp ($6), peach, topped with vanilla ice cream -- nice and nutty and a fitting way to top off our virtual journey to the beach.
The décor enhances the seafood and lobster shack theme gracefully. Designer John Lum, whose work includes the interiors of AsiaSF and Hayes & Vine, synthesized traditional New England charm with city-savvy, San Francisco style. Blue and yellow tones represent beach hues that create a calm sense of escape and successfully contrast from high-traffic Lombard Street outside. Pale, sandy-yellow wainscoted walls and a wooden boat-shaped bar next to a wave of marine blue mini-tiles feels cozy and nautical at the same time. And, the shimmery screen made of plastic tubing captures an aquatic, wave-crashing-on-the-shore sensibility with the pragmatic purpose of dividing the dining room from the kitchen.
Neighborhood minded and environmentally conscious, Café Maritime is a partner in the Seafood Watch campaign -- supporting sustainable fishing and aquaculture operations. It's nice to think that maybe our kids and grandkids will be able to enjoy Selvera's fresh, fishy concoctions as well.
by Sarah Sung on Nov 18, 2004