Fog Harbor Fish House Cooks Sustainable Fish For the Masses
Fog Harbor Fish House recently became the first restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf to commit to using 100% sustainable seafood. SF Weekly had never written anything about the restaurant, so I joined the flock of German and French tourists walking down Embarcadero to check it out.
Photos by W. Blake Gray Trout ($18)
Ah, Fisherman's Wharf. Fog Harbor is adjacent to a shop called "Only in San Francisco" that sells t-shirts emblazoned with the city's name that were made in Mexico and Bangladesh. As I ascended the steps to the restaurant, I "enjoyed" a busker playing Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" on a flute.
The restaurant interior is quietly attractive, with wood pillars and spare walls, the better to enjoy the marvelous views of the Blue & Gold Fleet of boats right next door and, not far off, Alcatraz.
The hostess and server knew that the fish is sustainable, but when I asked my server where the trout and the sole were from and how they were caught, she had to ask the kitchen. Turns out the trout is farmed in Idaho and the sole is Petrale sole, which didn't fully answer my question because Petrale sole is usually caught by trawler. So I ordered the trout ($18).
Provenance wasn't the only reason I had trout. Fog Harbor has the same menu at lunch and dinner. At dinner it's reasonably priced; most entrees are in the high teens and twenties, and VP of Operations Bob Partrite later defended his pricing, saying he serves a larger portion of fresh fish for less money than most other places in town.
But for lunch, it's a bit of a splurge. Not counting appetizers or sides (and even those are $5-$21,with a median of $13), the cheapest lunch possible is a 1/2 pound hamburger with fries for $12. The cheapest seafood lunch is a crab and shrimp salad sandwich for $14. To be fair, I could have had a bread bowl of clam chowder for $9. But I came to eat with the tourists, not to be one.
Yet the tourists are onto something. The highlight of the meal was the half-loaf of free, fresh, hot, crusty sourdough bread, not mentioned on the menu, that the server brought after I ordered. Partrite says they make it fresh every 15 minutes, and it shows.
Not completely deboned, and served with the skin still on one side, the trout had the advantage of not trying to cover up its origin by being formed into a patty or doused with sauce. A lattice of grill marks held a hint of butter and a very light dusting of a housemade spice mix of thyme, oregano, coriander, paprika and kosher salt. It was a fine preparation to showcase the flavor of the fish itself, but unfortunately the farm-raised trout didn't have much.
The austerity of the dish was echoed in the sides, a mound of butter-sauteed zucchini and red peppers and some plain, somewhat dry wild rice. All three were lacking in either flaws or zing.
Take photos of your food and you often get to meet the restaurant manager. First Ryan Simmons, the manager, came over, and we chatted about what it was like to switch to 100 percent sustainable seafood.
"We had to eliminate some fish from the menu," Simmons said. "Mahi mahi, we can no longer guarantee we can get sustainably. We're in the middle of salmon season, so that's fine now, but that's going to be hard. Salmon is our most popular item.
"The biggest problem for us was sustainable shrimp. We tried a lot of varieties. Texture was the biggest hurdle. The flavor was fine on many of them, but the texture was mushy. We're now using gulf shrimp."
Simmons said some prices went up a buck or two, and salmon is now market-priced, which might get interesting in winter.
I asked Partrite about the austerity of the preparation, assuming he was placating tourists from landlocked areas. But he pointed out that the Aquarium of the Bay is just across the walkway, and many people come in seeking fish.
"The aquarium people talk a lot about making better choices in seafood," Partrite said. "I thought, I want to make better choices. I want to do more as a business."
He said the grilled fishes tend to be more plain, while the daily specials allow the chefs to showcase what they can do with fish as a canvas.
I didn't have wine with lunch, but I will commend Fog Harbor for having an almost all-California wine list -- visitors hopefully don't come to the city at the center of our wine industry to drink French wine -- and 34 of 76 wines under $40. It's mostly familiar brands, but that's OK too; if somebody discovers they like Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc or Navarro Pinot Noir (I actually just highlighted two of the less-familiar brands on the list, which should tell you something), those are wines they can likely buy back home.
It's a stretch to expect Fog Harbor Fish House to appeal to locals. But let's keep it in perspective: I'm happy, and maybe even proud, that this is the restaurant our least savvy of tourists will visit. And in just a few weeks, Fog Harbor will print a laminated card explaining the concept of sustainable seafood to take home. That and a view of Alcatraz make it well within the range of true San Francisco experiences.