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Woodhouse Fish Company

Where the Lobster Rolls Rule the School

I was in Maine last summer, and when I wasn’t making Apple Betty from the fresh fruit in Uncle John’s front yard, or happily risking red tide from the endless mussels that revealed themselves like pluckable jewels at low tide, I had a delicious (though pricey) lobster-roll-a-day habit that I simply could not pinch. New England seafood is pure summer vacation and nostalgia; my grandfather owned a fish market in Massachusetts, and what was swimming in the morning was frequently swimming next to butter on a newspaper-strewn table on my family’s front porch that evening. New England seafood is an axiom of comfort food that will always be near and dear.

Thus, when I saw that Market Street’s old World Sausage Grill had become a salty East Coast seafood shack, I had visions of lobster boils bubbling in my head. Hand-painted signs promising fried Ipswich clam rolls beckoned. The look inside is deceptively casual for the price point -- simple table and chairs, mosaic crab tile flooring, a relatively unobtrusive flat screen here and there, and a few sushi bar-style display cases with Pinchy in all his red-shelled glory, holding his own lemon wedge, ready for the crack.

But the proof, as they say, remained to be tasted. And like all culinary tourism, some was superb, and some made me remember longingly that there’s no place like home. The Woodhouse Salad ($9.95) with Dungeness Crab was a charming San Francisco throwback, a succulent pile of crabmeat, delicious despite its being out of season at the time of review, paired with hard-boiled egg, avocado, good tomato, a mound of Iceberg, and a rightful dollop of Louie. We could have opted for prawns instead, but considering our server didn’t know their origin -- a strange thing, indeed, in a seafood restaurant -- we decided to go the safe route. The salad was served alongside the house New England clam chowder ($4.50/$6), brimming with the brine of excellent, succulent shellfish, but overly roux’ed and too viscous on the spoon.

Next in our net was the stuffed artichoke ($16), served “split asunder,” a mammoth, grilled, oily vegetable with good smoky flavor, well-garnished with fruit and vegetable, stuffed with more crab on one side, and the entirely disappointing prawns on the other. I could not ask these shriveled pale specimens of their pedigree, but if I had to guess, I would say the deep freeze, from a polluting Vietnamese factory farm of flavorless fish flab. There simply wasn’t enough tarter sauce or cocktail sauce on the plate to save them, particularly for the price.

Our waters warmed with the arrival of the fried dishes, and I’m still dreaming about the plate of perfectly-prepared fried oysters ($14) -- rotund, nearly fist-sized gems, delicately coated in a course cornmeal crust, fried fast and furious so as to be crunchy on the outside, and still moist and supple throughout. This was one of the few local seafood items on the menu, and the quality of flavor couldn’t help but make one cheer for the home team.

The Ipswich clams, flown in from New England, were also very good, and a rare gem in an SF kitchen, though they just could not rival the flavor they take on when enjoyed in their natural setting of woodhouse boats and L.L. Bean. With both dishes, the accompanying French fries tasted so flaccid and stale that it made me wonder if they were suffering from jet lag and passport delays on an intercontinental journey of their own. With such a prominent place plateside, and potatoes available here in cheap abundance, they should have been better.

Get your starch, instead, through the meaty, buttery seafood rolls -- either the clams, a daunting crab roll with melted cheese (seafood and cheese? yuck!), or the hunky lobster roll ($16), a thing of indulgence, particularly when you upgrade to the “mega” lobster roll as we did for a few bucks more ($22). This fat boy was honkingly huge, with mammoth sections of meat from a two-pound lobster (though it would have been that much sweeter had it been from two, one-pound critters), in a gentle toss of mayo, on a warm, buttered bun. The sweet flavor ripened even further once the flesh warmed in the bun’s well-toasted embrace. We had finally arrived at the brisk New England seaside I was seeking.

No dessert is served, and so here is where the sweetness ends. It will be interesting to see if this Castro joint can hang on the line at these prices and sans cocktails, as they weren’t terribly busy during our meal, and service seemed uncoordinated, with lots of loitering behind the counter. The captain needs to take charge and maximize what works at Woodhouse, so we can continue to access those delicious lobster rolls -- and thus keep our taste buds afloat.


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