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The Big Review: Joshua Skenes's Angler

It was supposed to bring Saison-style meticulousness to the masses. But the Embarcadero seafood restaurant isn’t as fun—or affordable—as it aspires to be.

SLIDESHOW

A spread at Angler includes a whole petrale sole, which is filleted tableside.

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The restaurant’s festive dining room and team of dark suit– wearing servers. 

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BBQ pineapple daiquiri.

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A whole head of radicchio dressed with XO vinaigrette.

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On a busy stretch of the Embarcadero, outside the ample space that once housed Chaya, time-warp rock tunes pump into the evening air, the Cars giving way to Huey Lewis and then Sting wailing on about Roxanne. Is someone’s uncool uncle throwing a party? Inside, huge fiberglass game fish hang like mounted trophies. Flames dance in a cavernous hearth, the centerpiece of a luminous open kitchen that runs along the back, its counter festooned with flowers, herbs, and fruits.

As a sober contrast, behold the front-of-house staff, an imposing squadron, predominantly men, all dressed in the dark suits of the Secret Service. Many wear earpieces and stone-faced expressions, cueing one another with hand signals and nods. They could be working dinner or a security detail.

Welcome to Angler, an ambitious restaurant that bends over backward trying to pass as easygoing but is several turns too self-regarding—and too spendy—to strike a convincingly laid-back pose.

The chef is Joshua Skenes, of three-Michelin-star Saison, and this is meant to be a more accessible offshoot—Saison for the masses, on a stretch of waterfront awash in tourists and tech money. Where Saison’s dining room seats 26 and deals in prix fixe, Angler can accommodate an army and lets you choose à la carte share plates. Skenes has described the cuisine as “sea-life focused,” and it’s true that many items come from the ocean. Bivalves on the half shell rotate through, from bracing Kumamotos to briny cherrystones, along with an assortment of pristine tartares. Thin cuts of marbled flounder sparkle like jewels, their surfaces shimmering with kelp oil. Bigeye tuna, torn using an abalone shell and shaped into an elegant, flower-bedecked disc, makes for sweet and fatty cargo that you scoop with a seaweed-dusted rice cracker.

River life is also represented, in the form of caviar: a private batch sourced from Sacramento that fetches $150 for 50 grams, or just enough to make a fleeting memory. Compared with those at other gilded restaurants around San Francisco, not all the prices here are entirely outlandish. But if Angler meets your standards for democratized indulgence, you might feel the same about Elon Musk’s planned shuttles to the moon.

On the plus side, with great expense comes mostly delicious food. That Saison meticulousness is apparent from the start, in a condiment tray that includes a crystal chalice of house-fermented hot sauce and an octopus-shaped shaker of barbecued salt shot through with woodsmoke from the hearth. These splash and sprinkle nicely on most anything you order.

As at Saison, dishes of rare beauty and painstaking preparation show not the faintest trace of the hard work that went into their fine looks. Take a whole head of radicchio, its leaves pruned and loosened but held fragilely together with just enough space between them for a vegetarian XO vinaigrette to get in and do its duties. And what a vinaigrette—brimming with umami, despite the absence of the usual dried-seafood components, and stained bright red with sweet, acidic beet juice. A bib comes with the order, and you’ll want to wear it to guard against the crimson spatter. Think Dexter after a staff meal at Chez Panisse.

If that sounds freewheeling, don’t get too excited. Skenes tends toward the self-serious, and that attitude permeates the place. Angler can’t quite shake it, no matmatter how much of a mess its salads make or how much ’80s rock it plays. Dining here doesn’t just require a tolerance for Ric Ocasek. It requires a stomach for solemn talk from servers about Skenes’s unrivaled genius. One spoke to me admiringly, echoing language on the restaurant’s website, of the chef’s use of “unique” techniques and tools.

I don’t believe that cooking over fire is unique. But I am convinced that Skenes does it very well. On a mix-and-match menu, the hearth plays a role across a range of mains and sides. It’s the heat source behind the baby abalone. Braised in seaweed and then grilled over the fire to just-so tenderness, they have a lush, livery richness that’s balanced with a dash of orange zest. From the wood fire also springs a whole petrale sole, which is something of a spectacle in its own right and even more of one when filleted tableside. It’s offered with a gravy boat of smoked butter. Drizzle this over the mild, moist fish and you’ve got a lovely marriage: sole with soul.

When he isn’t busy wood-fire roasting, Skenes sometimes crisps things in oil. Fried blowfish tails—not the poisonous fugu of sushi fame but a more common puffer fish—are impressively meaty, lightly dusted with seasoning, and garnished with lemon and fried jalapeños: a fish fry in an exotic guise. Hot fried rabbit calls to mind Nashville hot chicken—the rabbit meat is ground, pressed back around the bone, and bronzed in a buttermilk batter smoldering with the chilies of a housemade hot sauce.

To accompany such dishes, you’ve got a pick of sides whose blunt menu descriptions largely belie their nuance. A salad of “embered tomatoes” involves a roasted and halved heirloom topped with honey vinegar, strawberry mint, and a sweet-tart tomato jam that’s been cooked down slowly over the flames. It’s suggestive of a cognac-dipped cigar. The “Angler potato” is a starchy Carola potato sliced widthwise into multiple layers that are stacked back together, roasted to a golden hue in duck fat, then bedded on a spread of whipped cheeses. It’s pretty much a must. The same cannot be said of “Artichokes,” a scattering of artichoke leaves over four small halves of artichoke heart that taste too much like the canned version for comfort. At $18, they’re almost an affront.

Even more offensive is what Angler does with bread. It doesn’t simply charge for it—nowadays, a lot of restaurants do. It tacks on another five bucks if you want butter. Granted, the butter is house-cultured for two weeks. And yes, you get nearly a full stick of it. Still, what’s intended as a showcase of culinary craft just comes across as price gouging. It’s the sort of ungenerous gesture that leaves you feeling less charitable toward the restaurant. It might make you more inclined, say, to notice the kitchen’s sometimes awkward pacing, or to grumble to yourself that a lot of suited servers are just standing around while dirty dishes go uncleared.

I didn’t have any such complaints about dessert. The Angler sundae, a dish of vanilla soft serve with smoked caramel sauce as a moody complement, is a satisfying, understated finish to a meal where you’re almost certain to have been well fed. But feeling well fed is not the same as feeling well treated. It’s also not the same as having fun.

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Angler

Marbled flounder tartare. . . . . . . . . . . . . . $27
Bigeye tuna tartare. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $24
Radicchio XO. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $13
Angler potato . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $16
Hot fried rabbit. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $40
Whole petrale sole. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $60 (or MP)
Little abalone. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $38
Victory Sour Monkey beer. . . . . . . . . . . . .  $10
The Garibaldi. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $13
Total. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $241

Angler
132 the Embarcadero (near Mission St.), 415-872-9442
2½ Stars

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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