The old maxim that there's always more fish in the sea hasn't aged particularly well. With many species like bluefin tuna at serious risk of extinction due to overfishing, choosing the most responsible seafood is more important than ever. But one fish that won't soon be on an endangered list anytime soon is the humble anchovy.
Located on the Northern edge of the San Francisco Fillmore District, Anchovy Bar celebrates this humble bait fish, along with a wealth of other local and sustainable seafood options.
Anchovy Bar was originally slated to open in April 2020, but as the city of San Francisco shuttered most businesses at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant pushed its opening back to October. The project is spearheaded by the husband-and-wife team of Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, responsible for State Bird Provisions, which has earned James Beard awards for Best New Restaurant (2013) and Best Chef: West (2015). It's located just a few blocks from their other restaurant.
The most common ways people typically encounter anchovies are either hidden in a Caesar salad, at a tapas bar, or as the most divisive of all pizza toppings. But in the past few years, as tinned fish have become all the rage, anchovies have evolved from a seldom-seen dish to a popular appetizer. Anchovy Bar devotes the first section of its menu to this underrated sustainable fish.
While the restaurant does offer several imported options, the best time to visit is during the months of April to October, when they offer several preparations of local anchovies taken directly from San Francisco Bay. Due to high fat and oil content, anchovies spoil very quickly, so most that you'll find served elsewhere are cured in salt. However, thanks to local seafood purveyors like TwoXSea, Anchovy Bar receives anchovies only two hours after they've been pulled out of the Bay.
Although it's hard to find a more local fish than that, Anchovy Bar also offers several other seafood dishes sourced from California. Sweetwater oysters are farmed an hour north in Tomales Bay by Hog Island Oyster Company. Albacore from Eureka, CA is seared with charred tomato salsa and smoked chile aioli. A "chip & dip" smoked trout roe dish comes from Mendocino, CA. Halibut ceviche is sourced from the Marin Coat, harissa cured wild king salmon is from San Francisco, and their spiced tomato seafood stew is packed with the bounty of the Northern Coast of California.
Named to the New York Times' 2021 national restaurant list and covered breathlessly in almost every local publication, Anchovy Bar is one of the hippest new restaurants in the city. Although the slate gray interior is relatively austere, there's a simmer of enthusiasm in the air that deflates the potential for pretension. Servers seem genuinely excited about the menu, suggesting family-style dining and wasting no time recommending diners order at least one of the six anchovy dishes.
On the tail end of the local season, the three offerings made from San Francisco anchovies included a classic boquerone toast with tomato vinaigrette, anchovies "in purgatory" (yuzu kosho garlic butter and sansho pepper), and lime-pickled anchovies with lemongrass-toasted coconut sambal and fresno chile.
The lime-pickled anchovies ($22) were the standout dish of the evening; the oiliness of the tiny fish was complemented beautifully by the acidity of the lime. The fat from the lemongrass and coconut created a creamy mouthfeel, with just a touch of heat to round out the bite.
Although the restaurant offers a diverse selection of six different raw oysters, the broiled oyster dish is a great option for those looking for a heartier appetizer. The Western Addition Oyster ($10 for two) is topped with smoky date-bacon sambal butter, making for a fragrant and indulgent app that tastes meatier than most anything on the menu (aside from the mortadella with nardello-sweet corn peperonata, or the Spanish chorizo).
It's tempting to order only seafood, but don't miss the heirloom tomatoes, which are drenched in a black sesame vinaigrette and dotted with nori furikake and a few shiso leaves. The furikake adds just a slight crunch, an excellent contrast to the delicate texture of the tomatoes. The vegetable dish paired well with an order of the halibut ceviche, which had a sneak of bitterness in shreds of watermelon radish. Unfortunately the subtlety of the fish was overwhelmed by fatty chunks of avocado sourced from Brokaw Ranch Company in Santa Paula, CA. The avocados were less domineering in a hearty sticky rice entree topped with salted kampot aioli and pickled Fresno chile, but the rice itself was so charred that it was a challenge to cut off a portion.
Overall the food was inventive and playful, and despite a few clashing ingredients, the richness of the seafood made every bite exciting. The menu feels like it's designed for curious diners who are ready to explore flavors from every corner of the sea.
Anchovy Bar is one of the most popular new restaurants in San Francisco, and space isn't saved for walk-ins, so reservations are recommended and can be made on OpenTable for parties of up to six 30 days in advance. For COVID-conscious diners, there's plenty of outdoor parklet seating available with heaters for cold San Francisco nights. Like most San Francisco restaurants, it doesn't keep particularly late hours, opening at 5:00 p.m. and closing at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
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