One of the stronger arguments for vegetarianism is variety: there are far more kinds of vegetables and ways of preparing vegetables than there are meats and ways of preparing meat, even if you eat mutton. (And know where to get it.) Fish and seafood too are more various than meats — or at least they have been. There is growing evidence that most of the world’s major fisheries are drifting toward collapse; the British author Charles Clover gives a chillingly thorough review of the evidence in his new book, The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat (New Press, $26.95).
Eating fish, then, is no longer presumptively virtuous. It matters what fish we eat: farmed or wild, how and where taken if wild, health of the overall population, and so forth. Earlier this year, while reacquainting myself with Hayes Street Grill after some years’ absence, I noticed that the menu card now gives a good deal of information about the sources of the restaurant’s maritime dishes. The plain assumption is that diners want and need this information, that they are beginning to understand that choices about food involve a moral dimension and that considering the moral dimension of one’s choices need not ruin the meal nor the evening.
Given HSG’s position as an exemplar, I was curious as to whether its attention to sourcing might have begun to influence other seafood houses around town. One of the most obvious places to start looking would have to be Alamo Square Seafood Grill, which since the middle 1990s has sat atop a romantic stretch of Fillmore a block from the hilltop park that provides its name. From the beginning, Alamo Square borrowed a page from the HSG playbook by letting diners choose from among several varieties of fish, cooking method, and sauce. One difference: you did not get fries, as at HSG. On the other hand, there was — and remains — an early bird prix fixe option, three courses for $14.50 and a reminder that Alamo Square began as an offshoot of that long-running prix fixery, Baker Street Bistro, at the edge of the Presidio.
The restaurant looks none the worse for a decade of wear, except that the northern face of the street sign (wreathed in Christmassy little white lights) has lost its initial A: if, trekking uphill, you come across a place called lamo Square, you are there. Inside the storefront space, the mood is one of candlelit intimacy, and the crowd is varied, consisting largely of people in their 20s and early 30s (neighborhood folk?), along with the occasional interloper. A youngish couple who had Marina written all over them arrived in a silvery Aston Martin coupe, which they parked in the bus zone right outside the restaurant’s door. Oh Department of Parking and Traffic, where are you at those rare moments when you could actually be useful? Not that some DPT timeliness would have mattered in this case, since the canny pair took a window seat with a view of bus stop and car.
Our first order of business was establishing which of the proffered fish we might conscionably eat. Trout: no, a farmed carnivore, with aquafarming the cause of environmental pollution and carnivorous fish requiring on the order of four pounds of wild fish to return a pound of salable flesh. Mahimahi: attractively firm and abundant, though flown in from Hawaii. Red snapper: a local fish with decently managed populations, just a wee bit boring. And … an ahi tuna loin, prepared according to a set recipe. Tuna is dicey: bluefin is a no-no, other varieties somewhat less so.
Red snapper ($13.95), luckily, takes well to blackening even if it’s just the Pacific kind, not the true variety from the Gulf of Mexico. We found the mâitre d’hôtel sauce — basically a garlic and parsley butter — to be just assertive enough to make its voice heard without challenging the fish. The more party-hearty Provençale sauce — of tomatoes, black olives, capers, and garlic, a combination reminiscent of Neapolitan puttanesca — made a nice match with grilled mahimahi ($13.95), a fish that, like chicken, welcomes a little help and usually benefits from it. Platters of fish (not too little, not too much) were served with brown rice pilaf and a mélange of sautéed vegetables, among pattypan squash, zucchini, carrots, and button mushrooms; none of this quite matched good French fries for excitement, but it was all pretty tasty and much lower in fat.
The kitchen handles nonfish dishes with equal aplomb, from an amuse of wild-mushroom pottage spiked with a little balsamic vinegar and presented in demitasses to a fabulous salad of shredded romaine hearts ($6.75) tossed with crisp lardons, slivers of carrot and French radish, garlic croutons, blue cheese, and lemon oil. A soup ($6.25) of artichoke and fennel topped with pipings of curry oil was desperately underseasoned — all we could taste was the sweetness of the fennel — but a few good pinches from the tabletop salt dish coaxed the artichoke flavor forth.
There was even an occasional flash of wit, as in a tarte tatin ($5) made with pears instead of apples and presented in the au courant, deconstructed style: the pear slices were fanned over a floor of pastry. It looked a little like a pear pastry lasagna the chef hadn’t quite finished putting together. On the side, a pat of vanilla ice cream nodded to tradition.
As we left, we noted the Marina couple chattering away in their little surveillance box and the Aston Martin still sitting in the bus stop, ticketless. We gave the restaurant pretty good grades, in the A to A- range, for both overall experience and sustainability. Maybe the place can use one of those As to get the sign fixed. SFBG
ALAMO SQUARE SEAFOOD GRILL
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.; Sun., 5–9:30 p.m.
803 Fillmore, SF
Beer and wine