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Anchor & Hope

Modern Takes on Seafood Can’t Beat The Classics

Seafood has been a quiet but growing trend of late. To name just a few variations on this theme, there is the upscale new Waterbar on the Embarcadero, the shack-style Woodhouse Fish Company (soon to open its second location on Fillmore) and Fish (in Sausalito), the sustainably-focused Fish and Farm (in the Theater District), raw takes at Bar Crudo (soon to move to the Divisadero corridor), and the newly opened Nettie's Crab Shack (in the old Palmetto spot on Union).

As of mid-2008, there’s Anchor and Hope, opened by restaurant masters Doug Washington and the brothers Steven and Mitchell Rosenthal, the Postrio vets who also opened the ever-popular Town Hall and more recently the smash hit Salt House.

The new spot on Minna is the trio’s version of a classic East Coast fish shack, meshed with contemporary West Coast style. Inspiration is drawn from chef Sarah Schafer’s Bostonian background, East Coast stints at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison in New York, and a more recent gig running the kitchen at Frisson.

The redone warehouse space (formerly a car mechanic's garage) transports you to a rustic shipyard loft. High trestle ceilings are staged with knotted ropes hanging lazily over wooden beams. The marine theme is further underscored by oil lamps, lobster cages and old sailing lines, juxtaposed with potted plants lining one wall's topspace. At the opposite wall is a 35-foot zinc bar, marked by a Darwinian ink sketch of fish that dominates the wall overhead. The casual and inviting atmosphere certainly attracts large groups which make the experience loud, but not deafening.

Although we respect a restaurant’s need to maximize seating (and to be fair, we could have requested a different table), it seems odd to have been seated at a table butted right up against one of the entry glass double-doors when the rest of the tables were quite spaced out in the large expanse of the dining room.

We needed wine badly to deal with our cramped spot. New and old world wines are evenly represented at a good price range ($7-$17 by the glass, $28-86 by the bottle) and encourage experimenting with most bottles offered by the glass. The exception is a small sampling of higher-end choices for those with cash burning their pockets.

Our server could have used a refresher on basic service, always pouring my glass last after the three gentlemen in my party. Share plates also arrived long after our appetizers. However, he was attentive.

The menu consists of over ten appetizers and around the same number of entrees, focusing of course on fish with a vegetarian selection and few meat options. Daily seafood specials reside on a large chalkboard listing oysters ($2.25-$3 each) and shellfish ($6-$15) spanning both coasts, as well as fruit de mer platters ($42-$72).

The "Angels on Horseback" ($9) appetizer attests to what we all already know -- bacon makes everything good. Smoked slabs are wrapped around oysters and finished with a drizzle of remoulade. The presentation is phenomenal, with four oysters plated on half-shells atop a bed of seaweed and rock salt on a wooden chopping board.

Fried Ipswich clams ($13) were another hit, dubbed "very authentic" by the native New Englander in our party. Salmon gravlax ($10.50), made in-house, was far less popular. Friends who tried this on a separate occasion weren’t pleased with the mushy texture either. “Fries with Eyes” ($7.50), a plate of fried smelt with the same remoulade sauce, were additionally unsatisfying -- especially when paired with the angels. The smelt were limp and soggy when they should’ve been as crispy as the clams.

The second course was equally uneven. Bouillabaisse ($23) is a misnomer for this extremely spicy stew. While the fish and shellfish were cooked perfectly, the broth was not balanced in flavor and mostly imparted heat without any signs of saffron -- a main component of true bouillabaisse.

Another miss was the pepper-seared tombo tuna ($25). The busy combination of spicy mustard and aged balsamic fought, rather than complemented, the fish, and a strong horseradish overtone ruined the dish. The beer-battered fish and chips ($24) prepared with halibut were much better. The accompanying potato wedges seasoned with rosemary and thyme were delicious. The coleslaw however drowned in its own dressing.

Far better versions of this classic fish fare can be found at pubs around town for far less. The winner by far was the lobster roll ($23). Anchor and Hope’s version is as good as any from Massachusetts or Maine. Fresh, sweet lobster, not too overdressed with mayonnaise, overflows from a toasted brioche bun. Sea salted kettle chips on the side are the perfect pairing.

Desserts seemed to be an afterthought. The cheese plate is a nice finish ($12.50), but the heart of sweet cream ($9.00), something between a yogurt and cream cheese dressed with raspberry sauce, is not very interesting.

A menu built around fresh seafood doesn’t need a lot of reinvention. Simplicity and minimalism are key when you have great classics to build around. Anchor & Hope loses a little focus in this area. With its winning ambience, it only needs to steer a clearer course with the menu to make it a worthwhile experience even if the check does run on the high end.

Reservations Essential? Yes