Friday, September 10, 2010

If You’ve Ever Walked a Carnival Midway . . .

or along an oceanside boardwalk, you’re familiar with the “barkers” standing outside and urging you to come in.

(While writing about our lunch experience, we will show photos of the activity at the Powell-Hyde Cable Car turnaround in Acquatic Park at the western end of Fisherman's Wharf.*)

A walk along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco gives you much the same experience. But, in this case, the barkers aren’t encouraging you to see the Fat Lady or the Snake Charmer or to come in and buy gold jewelry (these guys are omnipresent along Ocean City, MD’s boardwalk), rather the barkers want you to eat at their restaurants. “Best clam chowder on the Wharf.” “Great fish and chips.” “Dungeness crab.”

Had it not been for a recommendation from our cousin Barbara Pauly, we may have succumbed to these appeals. But we knew better. We were looking for Scoma’s.

“Steeped with a family tradition of quality and service, Scoma’s opened in 1965, when brothers Al and Joe Scoma took over a six-table fishermen coffee shop serving fishermen on the wharf. Using their mother’s recipe collection, the Scoma brothers’ humble café became so popular that today we serve more than 400,000 locals and visitors annually. Scoma's also owns a fish receiving station, which permits public viewing of fish and local Dungeness crab as it's prepared for the kitchen daily” (from Scoma’s web site).

In charge of the kitchen is Steven Scarabosio, a native San Franciscan and a 1982 graduate of the Hotel and Restaurant program at San Francisco’s City College. In 1984, he accepted a line position at Scoma’s, in 1986 was promoted to Sous Chef, and in 1992 was promoted again to Executive Sous Chef. He assumed the position of Executive Chef in July 2002. Steve has had a simple philosophy, “let the food speak for itself.” And on that day, the food spoke loudly and clearly to us.

Scoma’s is by no means “budget eats” although the prix fixe lunch for less than $25.00 is a bargain. You can start with either a cup of clam chowder or a Caesar salad and then have a choice of entrée: petite Dungeness crab or bay shrimp Louis Salad; Pasta Garibaldi with salmon, mussels, sun dried tomato; broiled aged New York steak; broiled catch on mixed greens; or broiled catch with garlic mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. And you finish your meal with the Chef’s Selection dessert—that day a chocolate torte.

This is a restaurant where you could close your eyes and point to the menu and know you’ll be getting something great. For cold appetizers you can chose from: the mixed shellfish platter for two or four with Pacific oysters and clams on the half shell, prawns, and Dungeness crab legs; the Black'n Blu Ahi, which is spice-crusted and seared rare and served with watercress salad; a bay shrimp cocktail; a prawn cocktail; a Dungeness crab and prawn cocktail; or a smoked wild sockeye salmon plate with capers, red onion, tomato, mascarpone, and crostini. The hot appetizers included: a sampler plate with mini crab cakes, calamari fritti, and Laughing Bird Caribbean shrimp scampi; fried oysters with wasabi aioli; oysters Rockefeller a la Scoma; calamari fritti; Laughing Bird Caribbean shrimp scampi sautéed with garlic, white wine, and tomatoes; or salmon shrimp cakes with spring lettuces, lemon, and Dijon mustard sauce.

And there was an extensive selection of pastas – with or without seafood; steamed, broiled, grilled, or fried fish and seafood; risottos; salads and Louis (a cold seafood salad served with a 1000 Island like dressing); and meat alternatives for the non-fish and seafood eater.

We decided to share the two appetizer sampler options – the cold mixed shellfish platter with Pacific oysters and clams on the half shell, prawns, and Dungeness crab legs (the raw oysters and clams would be mine) and the hot sampler plate with mini crab cakes, calamari fritti, and Laughing Bird Caribbean shrimp scampi.

Our hot sampler plate come to the table with a generous serving of calamari strips mixed with some tentacle pieces, a small bowl of scampi, and two mini crab cakes. With the plate came a small dish of Louie dressing for the crab cakes, a dish of tartar sauce, and a dish of horseradish catsup cocktail sauce. All three were delicious and obviously made in-house, but the cocktail sauce was a particular surprise. Chuck is no big fan of horseradish, so he normally doesn’t eat cocktail sauce, but he found himself dipping his calamari into this one.

But as wonderful as the sauces were, you almost didn’t want to use them. As Chef Scarabosio said: “Let the food speak for itself.” The mini Dungeness crab cakes contained virtually no filler other than some minced onion or scallion and were lightly flavored with seafood seasoning. The scampi was an unusual version (or at least to me) in that it contained diced tomatoes along with the traditional oil, garlic, and lemon; the sauce had an underlying sweetness from the wine. (We liked the sauce so much that we used our bread to finish every drop.)

Bay shrimp are small shrimp and so are easily overcooked. Not so here.

But the star of the plate was the calamari fritti. I was a little concerned when I saw the plate arrive on the table. Chuck likes his calamari as rings and the smaller the rings the better. This was the split tubes variety and I wasn’t sure if he would eat or enjoy it. (Of course, if he did neither, that would mean more for me.) One bite and a look of euphoria crossed his face, and he declared that this was “melt in your mouth” calamari. And it was. Prepared simply – just lightly tossed in flour and then fried – this was the best calamari ever. And I thought that honor went to Andreoli in Scottsdale.

As we were finishing our hot sampler, the cold sampler had not yet arrived. I wondered if our waitress (Lillian) had understood that we wanted the both hot and cold. When we caught her attention, we realized that she had not, but would have the kitchen prepare one without delay. “Just a minute,” says Chuck looking across the table at me. I knew immediately what he was thinking. He’d eat everything on the hot sampler, but not on the cold.

“Let’s get another hot sampler” I replied. He was a happy man. So we replicated our earlier order and enjoyed the repeat as much as the first.

Scorma’s is an old-fashioned white tablecloth white napkin restaurant with old-fashioned service. Between samplers, the staff removed and replaced all of the china and silver, our water and ice tea glasses were never empty, and we were fortunate to have come after the lunch rush, so that we had a chance to talk with Lillian.

Just as we were ready to order dessert, I realized that we had about twenty minutes to catch our ferry back to Vallejo. The special chocolate torte will have to wait until another day. But Chef Scarabosio’s food spoke to us that day, and we award Scorma’s a 5.0 Addie rating—and award Barb Pauly 5.0 Addies for her recommendation.

*The cable car comes down the left set of tracks (photo #1) onto the circle (#2). While on the circle, it is then pushed counterclockwise about 350 degrees (#3) so that it can be driven off the circle (#4, #5, #6) on the right set of tracks to the boarding area (#7). Before or after riding the cable car, a stop is in order at the Buena Vista Cafe (#8) for an Irish coffee which was created here over 50 years ago.

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