The reflecting pool

Pub date August 15, 2006

A chicken-and-egg — or maybe fish-and-roe — problem: do neighborhood restaurants tend to reflect the character of a neighborhood or does a neighborhood take its cues from its restaurants? The answer is probably both, since that is usually the answer to such trick questions, but in general there is more of the former than the latter, I would say. The truly revolutionary restaurant, the place that makes a startling announcement of intention on a street of sameness, birds of a feather flocking together, is fairly rare. Or, to exhaust this vein of sorrily mixed metaphor, a rare bird. Or fish.
You can hardly miss Pisces California Cuisine, a small seafood house that opened in March on a drab stretch of Judah in the outermost Outer Sunset, one of those descending western neighborhoods whose colorless, low buildings seem to melt into the gray sea. The whole area cries out for a massive repainting, perhaps from the air by one of the California Department of Forestry’s firefighting tanker aircraft, refitted to spray some actual color. Shades of red, orange, yellow, and pink would be nice.
Pisces’s facade is black: a bit stark but handsome nonetheless, and drastically unlike any of the nearby storefronts. Though the restaurant occupies a midblock space, it is easy to find, since black facades aren’t commonplace even in your most happening habitats. Inside, Pisces has the SoMa loft look: it’s an airy box, clean and spare, with exposed ductwork and sleek Euro-modern furniture. Behind the bar hangs a plasma TV tuned to ESPN for a slight sports bar effect: a sop to neighborhood sensibility?
The food, on the other hand, is full of casual metropolitan style and is available at both dinnertime and lunchtime in prix fixe guise. In the evening, $22.50 buys you three courses (chosen from a brief list), while at noon you pay $11.50 for two courses (from another brief list) plus tea or coffee. As a rule I am mesmerized by the siren call of the prix fixe; it is generally a good deal, reduces the job of sifting through choices (and later, parsing the bill), and tends to emphasize both the chef’s interests and seasonal treats.
At the moment there is no sweeter a seasonal treat than king salmon, now in its second summer of regulation-induced scarcity. So finding it on Pisces’s prix fixe list was like a sign from above: You must have this. And I did; but first I had a bowl of kabocha squash soup, electrified with some generous flicks of cayenne pepper and shavings of fresh ginger and poured over crisped strips of taro root to give textural interest. For color, a miniature bouquet of microgreens.
The salmon, a large filet, arrived on a berm of mashed potatoes ringed by a honey-soy emulsion, which resembled caramel sauce. Between the fish and the spuds lay a duvet of braised spinach leaves and slivers of shiitake mushroom. The fish, grilled to medium-rare, was excellent in its simple way, but even meaty fish like salmon doesn’t stand up particularly well to mashed potatoes. They could have been done away with entirely or reduced to an ornamental role or replaced by taro root in some form.
Across the table meanwhile, a bowl of excellent, thick chowder ($4) heavy with clam meat slowly disappeared, to be followed by a plate of batter-fried calamari ($9). The calamari pieces were on the flaccid side (oil not hot enough?) but were redeemed by a habit-forming sweet-sour barbecue sauce for dipping.
Despite the king salmon and “California cuisine” nomenclature, Pisces’s food is far from purely seasonal. Kabocha squash, for instance, speaks of winter. So does crab, which turned up in a good crab salad sandwich ($9.50) in the company of good fries. The salad carried a few flecks of shell, but I chose to interpret this as a sign that the kitchen is cracking and cleaning its own crabs even in the off-season. And let us not forget such beyond-seasonal dishes as seafood linguine, offered as part of a lunchtime prix fixe and featuring bay scallops, shrimp, and mussels — all farmable — in an herbed cream sauce. The beauty of a preparation like this is that it’s almost infinitely variable: you toss in a little of this, a little of that, whatever’s good today or (yes) in season — even king salmon — and it will still make people happy, especially if they’ve opened with a good Caesar salad, showered with croutons and squiggles of shaved parmesan cheese.
Desserts here are good if mainstreamish, and they make up in price what they lack in imaginative verve. The fudgey chocolate brownie cake ($5.75), for instance, topped by a little helmet of cherry ice cream, would probably cost at least $3 or $4 more at any comparable restaurant east of Twin Peaks while being not quite as big; Pisces’s version survived a two-front assault for several minutes. A crème brûlée (part of the prix fixe) wasn’t quite as shareable but did reflect stern and basic virtues: it consisted of a straightforward vanilla custard of just the right fluffy-firm consistency under a thick, brittle cap of caramelized sugar, and it was served in a plain, white, round ramekin of the sort you see stacked in cooking-school kitchens. While my austere, puritan self approved of the lack of ornamentation or embellishment, my other self — or one of them — couldn’t help wondering if a little garnish would have been entirely out of place. A sprig of mint is never hard to come by, and it is the season of berries after all — stone fruit too. Maybe cherries … black cherries? SFBG
Lunch: daily, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
Dinner: daily, 5–10 p.m.
3414–3416 Judah, SF
(415) 564-2233
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level
Wheelchair accessible