If you see a compact, heavily tattooed man skateboarding down Minna, don't assume he's a carefree slacker. Chances are he's chef Mitchell Rosenthal, using the most efficient — not to mention lowest-carbon-footprint — method to travel between his downtown San Francisco restaurants. We hope his colorful arms are insured, because the popular Town Hall and Salt House have recently been joined by Anchor & Hope, and Rosenthal, along with his brother Steve, is now responsible for three congruent but disparate kitchens.
Unlike Town Hall on the corner of Howard and Fremont, with its huge signs highly visible from the Fremont exit of the Bay Bridge, and Salt House, with its shiny plate-glass facade right on Mission, Anchor & Hope is tucked away from public view on Minna, an alley between Mission and Howard. As with Town Hall and Salt House, the Rosenthals and their partner, Doug Washington, have rescued a century-old building not designed for restaurant use. The compact one-story structure with its stepped-brick frontage was most recently a parking garage, though it might have been originally built as a stable or a warehouse. One visitor to the restaurant, himself an artist, thinks it might once have been the studio of the famed sculptor Benny Bufano, and some research confirms that.
The current occupants are artful indeed. The ceiling has been opened up to showcase the exposed wooden struts, themselves draped with thick ropes to insinuate a nautical theme. Free-standing walls have been built within the exposed-brick walls of the structure: the one behind the 35-foot zinc bar counter (where you can also dine) has been enlivened with a massive, witty mural of small fish being swallowed by bigger ones, painted by Washington's artist wife. The classic aluminum chairs also offer a touch of the sea: they're known as the Navy chair, having been designed for submarines in WWII.
The Rosenthals are culinary-schooled New Jersey boys who are veterans of many kitchens, including Paul Prudhomme's K-Paul, Seppi Renggli's Four Seasons, Le Cirque, the Pierre Hotel, and most famously in San Francisco at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio. They cook the kind of American food currently known as New: fresh, seasonal, and market-driven, borrowing from many different cuisines. In the progression from the fancy, stately restaurants and hotels they've cooked in to their own places, you sense a yearning for straightforward, simpler places: hangouts, in fact. They announced that Anchor & Hope would be a "fish shack," but how shacky are oysters at between $2.25 and $3 each, a lobster roll at $23 ($21 at lunch), or grilled citrus-marinated salmon with basmati rice, spring peas, and morels ($17 at lunch)?
The ambitious opening menu has been reduced from a month ago. The appe-teasers, once given their own heading of "Sarah's Snack Corner" for chef Sarah Schafer, late of Frisson, have been scaled back. No more stuffed escargot or salt-cod brandade, though the rarely seen angels on horseback (bacon-wrapped oysters) remain. Every other category has been shortened by a dish or two. The kitchen was probably a trifle overwhelmed by the place's instant popularity, despite the fact that the alcohol license arrived a week or so after the opening date. We do love the fact that every wine on the focused but eclectic 60-bottle list is also available by the glass. And there are four beers on draught as well as another two dozen in bottles.
When we ask for a 6:30 or 7 p.m. reservation, we're offered 6 or 8. We choose the earlier time, and, arriving a few minutes early, are greeted by an almost empty room.
In addition to the one-page handwritten menu offering about a dozen appetizers, six fish dishes, two meat ones (stuffed guinea hen and grilled ribeye tonight), a vegetarian plate, and three vegetable sides, there are two chalkboards bearing today's raw bar offerings: 18 different oysters, shrimp cocktail, two ceviches, and crab and lobster salads. The dangers of anticipating a meal by reading Web sites, even the restaurant's own, are brought back to us when we don't find the bacon, egg, and cheese gratin we'd wanted to try from the sides. (By the next day, the dish has disappeared online, too.) We're so thrown by this that we forget to order the fried pearl onions, a dish we've never seen before.
That was stupid, because frying is something Anchor & Hope's kitchen is excellent at, based on the evidence of the beautifully cooked smelts ($7.50). The dish is somewhat alarmingly called "fries with eyes," but it's a generous heaping of the small fish, with steamy, tender white flesh under golden crisp exteriors, served with a lovely pale-pink and slightly sweet rémoulade. The local halibut, in a batter made with Smithwick's dark beer ($24), is similarly carefully fried, though not quite the "best version of fish 'n' chips you've ever had," as incautiously announced by our otherwise accurate, helpful, and exceedingly charming server. First of all, it's served with roast potato wedges (dusted with rosemary) rather than fried potatoes, eliminating the second essential crunch of the dish; secondly, the fish is served in two big chunks, and we'd prefer smaller filets, increasing the crust-to-fish ratio. The tartar sauce served alongside needed a bit more excitement, too: we preferred dipping the halibut in the rémoulade that came with the smelts, a dish we'd gladly order again.
As we would the delicious Anchor & Hope chowder ($9), the creamy soup modishly poured from a pitcher onto a layer of minced littleneck clams, bacon, and white corn kernels, though the prevailing flavor was more corny than clammy. But the most delicious and rich starter was the warm sea urchin ($15). The presentation is unusual and alarming: a whole dangerously spiked urchin shell plopped on a stark white plate, but ah, the extraordinary and beautiful filling it contains: sea urchin roe, Dungeness crab, mashed potatoes, and diced, subtle aromatics. This is an irresistible signature dish, one of the most memorable things we've ever eaten.
We're less enamored of the sea scallops ($24), four plump brown ones set atop Napa cabbage in a light cream sauce, garnished with golden raisins and toasted almonds. They might have worked better at half the size as an appetizer. Similarly, the lobster roll, though picture-perfect in its buttered, top-split toasted roll, served with Old Bay kettle chips and rather characterless coleslaw, is not quite our dream. There's a touch of heat in the mayonnaisey sauce, along with the classy hints of chervil and tarragon, that somewhat obscures the essential lobster flavor.
Only three desserts are offered (all $9), and we try all three: a lovely moist multilayered chocolate cake strewn with chopped pistachios; bread pudding with peach puree; and our favorite, the rarely seen coeur à la crème, fromage blanc whipped with cream to a mousselike consistency, served in its classical heart shape along with sliced strawberries and three lavender-scented shortbread cookies. As we admire the snake-tattooed back of a tight-jeaned, stiletto-heeled babe sitting near us, we remember Anchor & Hope's encouraging online words: "Wear a suit or jeans. Have four courses or just champagne and oysters. Eat early or eat late." To which we would add: Order the warm sea urchin.