But not at Blue Point, whose small kitchen turned out plate after plate of perfectly cooked seafood without a misstep. It's as if a little chunk of Hawthorne Lane had broken off and taken root in the Outer Richmond, with food as good and half as expensive. Blue Point is a deal, but it would be worth the journey -- and the parking travails -- even if it cost a lot more.
(The restaurant offers one hour of free validated parking at a lot on Clement between 23rd and 24th avenues. Street parking is tougher but doable.)
The maitre d' seated us in the booth nearest the kitchen, which made it easy to watch the young chefs' acrobatic pan-jiggling and tossing. A basket of warm, tender sourdough bread arrived almost immediately -- just the thing to dip in the thyme-infused olive oil (a very pale green, and mild) from the bottle on the table. That's a nice touch; too often the server will pour some oil -- never enough -- into a dish and disappear, indifferent to the distress of bread-nibblers who have nothing to dip their slices into.
Water glasses were continually refilled, though after several pours our tumblers were clogged with ice, like Midwestern rivers in spring. There was little room for actual water. Service generally was attentive and free of plastic chitchat: a sign of professionalism. After a while, however, I did come to feel that our server was hovering a bit, pouncing on plates before we'd quite finished with them and standing there awkwardly instead of trying to collect them again a few minutes later. Was the kitchen running short of clean crockery? Always a possibility in a small, new place, though the restaurant was only about half-full. The coming of the server always interrupts conversations, especially interesting ones, and a server who lingers too long at tableside risks annoying the diners.
Happily, our server was soon bringing memorable food. The salmon cakes ($6.95) arrived on a bed of mixed greens with a spicy tartar sauce (basically mayonnaise souped up with shallots, chives, and in this case capers). The coaster-size disks -- crisp gold enveloping a lush creaminess -- were greedily seized upon and devoured by the entire table, leaving a look of polite vexation on the face of the man who'd ordered them: He'd taken only a few bites before the plate was taken from him and passed around like plunder.
The pan-seared shrimp ($6.95) was beautifully cooked -- firm, not tough -- but the little pearls of goat cheese, each topped with a freckle of sun-dried tomato, had a too-eager flavor that contended with the shrimp for dominance. The fresh basil leaves at the side of the plate, on the other hand, while peppery, kept to their place. (What to do with goat cheese? It's so good on crackers, but it just doesn't play well with other flavors: It either fights with them or overwhelms them. Little dabs of creme fraiche, whose sourness is more muted, would have been better.)
The steamed shrimp ($6.95) were wrapped in a thin blanket of prosciutto and dressed with a Dijon vinaigrette. Prosciutto, too, with its salty fruitiness, can be overwhelming, but in this dish it minded its manners and remained an adjunct to the shrimp.
The genius of the salmon carpaccio ($6.75) was the almost relishlike vinaigrette of diced red onions, feta cheese, and oregano -- a classic Greek combination that turned successfully on the mildness of the feta.
"The stuff you buy in the store is usually so harsh and salty, not like this cheese," said one of my companions, a caterer, dipping a leftover slice of bread in the vinaigrette as we waited for the dishes to be cleared (quickly) and the main courses to be brought on (not so quickly.)
The Caterer's crab cioppino ($12.95) used a hollowed-out round of sourdough bread as a centerpiece. The protruding crab legs were a campy touch -- a little too Fisherman's Wharf for us. But the tomato broth inside was thick, spicy, and laden with mollusks, while the filet of salmon on the side was cooked the way salmon should always be cooked: seared crisp outside, moist within.
The rosemary grilled sea bass ($11.95) wasn't quite as dramatically browned as the salmon, but the piece of fish itself was so good that it needed little help. Is Chilean sea bass the perfect whitefish? It's firm, light, and tasty, and it stands up to the grill as well as any variety. The piney scent of rosemary was pleasantly subtle. Sauteed vegetables and a handful of whole roasted garlic cloves rounded out the plate.
The cilantro grilled swordfish ($12.95) was thin like an abalone steak, and the flavor of the herb was soft. A garbanzo-bean salsa, with diced red peppers, scallions, and roasted potatoes, reminded me of that American summertime classic three-bean salad.
The ravioli ($9.95) was stuffed with crab meat and served with crab legs on the side. The cream sauce was redolent of rosemary and, we concluded after discussion and repeated tastings, sage.
At $3.95, desserts were as much of a bargain as everything else on the menu. Tiramisu (ugh!) was a sweet cloud of cream, like a piece of bland wedding cake. The fudgelike chocolate torte, on the other hand, was a serious piece of work -- a dark star of cocoa-bean intensity.
With youthful enthusiasm and professional know-how in ideal balance, Blue Point is exactly the sort of small, distinctive bistro that makes the dining scene in the city so special. It's far from the maddening downtown crowds -- but not too far.
Blue Point, at 2415 Clement in S.F., is open daily 5 to 10 p.m.; call 379-9726.