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McCormick and Kuleto's

Locals tend to avoid dining north of Bay Street unless they're hitting In and Out Burger for a fresh-fried fix or Gary Danko for a swanky dining odyssey (although those in the know hit Ana Mandara for their spicy cinnamon rum cocktails and super-rad Mekong Delta Basa fish). We've always heard mixed reviews about McCormick and Schmick's, the Ghirardelli Square seafood-with-a-view destination, but when they got a young new chef in January 2002, we decided it was time to check things out.

What we found was that 27 year-old Chef Armen Jeghelian's new digs are a solid pick for pleasing a crowd, especially a crowd that insists upon a sweeping Bay view and an arsenal of menu choices. We're talking out-of-town visitors, picky relatives, business associates of uncertain taste, and anyone else who might be somewhat tricky to please in a dining milieu.

The restaurant is successful in this way because it offers not only its traditional touristy fare, such as a dairy-heavy shrimp, crab and artichoke dip with walnut bread (a guilty pleasure for a bite or two), but also more contemporary dishes such as crunchy coconut prawns with papaya mango salsa, or sea scallops with polenta, spinach, pine nuts and a gorgeous tangerine cream sauce.

McCormick and Kuleto's big schtick is that they fly in a ridiculously wide array of fresh seafood from all over the world, creating this gigantic menu containing the likes of broadbill swordfish from San Pedro, CA, escolar from Bali, lingcod from Alaska, Jonah crab from Massachusetts, etc. etc.

Then Chef Jeghelian and his staff either cook it up fancy for you with achiote marinade and grilled pineapple or keep it simple with drawn butter or tomato saffron broth. While half the seafood we tried didn't taste all that freshly flavorful on its own (my companion and I are both big fresh seafood snobs, being from the coastal region of South Carolina), the other half, notably a bowl of creole-spiced steamed crawfish and a grilled Coho salmon with wild rice and blood orange shallot vinaigrette, was fabulous.

So what I'm saying is that it's going to be hit or miss, but all in all, the joint is pretty solid and you're safe in terms of variety and price point. You can get an oystery hangtown fry or a corned beef sandwich for nine bucks, a steak for a seafood stew for twenty, Maine lobster for forty, or a chilled shellfish platter for fifty. It's up to you and your guests. High marks do go to the dessert so obscenely titled "Dark Chocolate Bag," which is a cappucino mousse in a paper bag-shaped shell made of dark chocolate. You think it's going to be hokey, and yeah, it is, but it actually looks quite elegant and it tastes real, real good.

The place is huge and has that old-school grandeur that makes SF interior architecture so compelling. What's rad about seating at McCormick and Kuleto's is that it's set up in theatrical tiers, so that all tables have a gorgeous view of Angel Island and Sausalito, from the formidable, white tableclothed four-tops on the main floor to the swanky oval booths on the upper tiers. Adjacent banquet facilities for 25 to 450 long to be filled with wedding parties and business groups sipping well-made Sapphire martinis and slurping fresh oysters on the half shell.

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