There are more than 4,000 varieties of crab in the world, but the Dungeness has its own unique cachet for San Franciscans. Found along the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Alaska, but particularly in Northern California, it's especially tasty and abundant during January and February, giving us something to live for during these dark and drizzly months. The best way to eat it is to crack it open at the table, dig the milky-white chunks of meat from the shell with your fingers, dip them into a tub of melted butter, and convey this sweet, briny, succulent eau de mer to your expectant gullet.
There are lots of places to sample crab (and oysters, mussels, prawns, scallops, and other seasonal delectables) here in aquacentric S.F. Two of the best are Swan, the connoisseur's choice, a century-old enclave of rickety stools, general bonhomie, and simply prepared shellfish; and Aqua, its temperamental opposite, all expense-account posh and nouvelle-cuisine flourish. Another venue strikes a happy balance between the two: Bar Crudo, tucked in an unprepossessing storefront above the Stockton Tunnel (a larger second location is opening soon at 655 Divisadero). While the setting is casual and friendly, with an old San Francisco oyster-bar vibe and a corresponding dedication to absolute freshness, the platters are anything but simple, with jewel-like helpings of sturgeon, lobster, yellowtail, and butterfish presented against California-cuisine settings of almond dust, licorice greens, and grilled Meyer lemon. The delicate flavors are seldom compromised by folderol or heavy sauces, though, and are accented just enough to showcase that combination of lush texture and salt-sprayed simplicity characteristic of the freshest seafood.
The place belongs to the longstanding San Francisco tradition of the cozy, simple hangout that serves unexpectedly delectable food. Two L-shaped counters offer seating in the narrow downstairs space; upstairs is a low-slung loft with a few scattered tables and windows overlooking Bush Street. What can only be described as an expressionist squid wall hanging dominates the restaurant's minimal decor; the real artistry is in the inspired presentations that take the raw-bar concept into brighter, more complex terrain.
Take the seared scallops ($16), one of the restaurant's three hot dishes. Plump, rich, and juicy, they're served on a bed of puréed celery root with minced apple and licorice greens, adding a subtle sweetness to the seafood's smoky flavor.
The mild taste of yellowtail sashimi ($12) shouldn't survive a bouquet of lemongrass, cilantro, mint, daikon, and enoki, plus a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt, but it does, beautifully. Arctic char ($12) is jazzed by a dollop of mild horseradish, a thread of dill, and a spoonful of spiky tobiko into expressing its buttery nature, while another (raw) scallop preparation ($12) employs fresh fennel and bits of orange and olive to bring out its sweet, meaty flavor.
Other combinations aren't as successful. Bland tombo tuna ($12) is no match for an overly sweet onslaught of minced pear, almond oil, and reduced pomegranate, and the luscious taste and texture of lobster meat ($16) was overwhelmed by gloppy burrata cheese, a sugary vinaigrette, and two varieties of beet.
But the seafood chowder ($7 cup, $14 bowl) — a bountiful bowl of shrimp, mussels, squid, clams, Arctic char, and potatoes with lots of peppery cream and smoky, fat-ribboned applewood-smoked bacon — is a rich, soothing, bisquelike dream. The San Sebastian (tuna confit with roasted peppers, asparagus, caperberries, olives, and shaved manchego) is a robust culinary tour of the Mediterranean ($13), while the seared wild sturgeon with uni butter, escarole, and blood-orange vinaigrette is a rich, lusty, decadent treat ($19).
Bar Crudo also knows when to leave well enough alone, a case in point being the Dungeness ($14 half, $26 whole) that brought us here in the first place. Simply cooked until sweet and tender, it's served in the shell with a variety of meat-extracting tools and a bowl of drawn butter, nothing more. Oysters on the half shell (a daily changing selection that might include Kumamotos from Washington at $2.50 each or Miyagis from Marin at $2.25 each) get a bit more window dressing — little bowls of citrusy mignonette, crunchy tobiko caviar, and a particularly sharp cocktail sauce. Clams from Virginia's Rappahannock River ($1.50 each) have all the briny, chewy flavor of everyone's favorite bivalve, and peel-and-eat jumbo prawns from the Gulf of Mexico ($2 each) are sweet and luscious all on their own. The best of the restaurant's chilled-shellfish selections are tender, meaty mussels ($1.50 each) with a bit of citrus, parsley, and sweet pepper to highlight their robust flavor.
Service at Bar Crudo is knowledgeable, pleasantly opinionated, and attentive (our server tracked us down at the Tunnel Top saloon next door to tell us when our table was ready). The carefully crafted wine list is all about complementing the seafood, offering a brief yet creditable selection of 28 vintages at reasonable prices; the crisp, almost tart Paco & Lola Albariño out of Spain's Rías Baixas region ($10 a glass) was especially yummy alongside the buttery Arctic char. A dozen are available by the glass. Even more impressive is the restaurant's beer list featuring 44 top-shelf brews from around the world (primarily Belgium, natch), including such seldom-seen bottles as Japan's Kiuchi Red Rice Ale and Cooperstown's Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence. Verhaeghe's Duchesse de Bourgogne Flanders-style red ale ($9) was a singular experience: mildly sweet with a bracing near-balsamic undertone, a perfect match for the seafood chowder.
The only items on the dessert menu are a platter of three cheeses with wildflower honey, fresh fruit, and walnut bread ($15); and handcrafted truffles ($6) from XOX, the accomplished North Beach chocolatier. Dark, rich, and earthy, with centers of molten fudge and burnt-sugar caramel, the truffles make a perfect, deceptively simple conclusion to the complex yet satisfying delicacies that preceded them.
January: Bring it on.