So, we got off on the good foot almost as soon as we arrived in San Francisco, and things never really let up the whole time we were there [as you'll see--ed.]. Case in point: our visit to Swan Oyster Depot on our last day in town.
Swan was right at the top of our list of places to check out while in the Bay Area and when we still hadn't gone there during our first week we decided to make it part of our closing ceremonies. Everything we'd read about Swan--the absolute freshest seafood, its long history, its classic counter service, its reasonable prices--made it sound absolutely amazing. But we really got the bug to go there a few days earlier on a trip to Santa Cruz when Michelle tried Dungeness Crab for the very first time and I re-experienced it for the first time in some 20 years. We had it in the form of a crab sandwich and what looked like the simplest arrangement imaginable--two slices of bread, a pile of crabmeat, some Crab Louie sauce, and some salad fixin's turned out to be the hit of the day. After that, we were determined to have more Dungeness Crab (even if it wasn't exactly the season) and we'd decided Swan was going to be the place.
We showed up just before the lunchtime rush kicked in and got seated at the far end of Swan's counter, near the kitchen. I loved it from the moment I stepped in. What a beautiful space and what a perfect atmosphere, friendly and unpretentious. We'd been eating pretty well on this trip and I didn't have an enormous appetite when we showed up, so I arrived thinking that maybe I'd just have a few oysters and a bowl of clam chowder and leave it at that. I hadn't been expecting the impact of seeing the wide selection of seafood on offer at Swan. Fish, smoked fish, clams, oysters, shrimp, crab--it all looked so tantalizing. We stuck to our plan and ordered a couple of bowls of clam chowder and some oysters, and then we decided we'd sniff around for something else to round out our experience at Swan. That day, Swan had a selection of five different oysters to choose from. We're much better versed in Atlantic oysters and even French oysters than we are in Pacific oysters, so we weren't sure how to begin. Our waiter made things very simple for us by offering us a sampler platter, then serving us eight oysters on the half shell for the price of six (that's just the kind of place Swan is). All four types of oysters were among the best I've ever had, so good you didn't want much dressing on them, just a bit of lemon juice. But the ones that impressed us the most--both in terms of taste and aesthetics--were the Tomales Bay Miyagis, which had a lovely delicate blue hue to them [you can see one towards the upper right corner of the photo above--ed.]. Swan's clam chowder was the real deal, no thickening agent, just a whole lot of clams in a simple, hearty chowder, made with a lightly creamy broth, unlike the typically gloppy clam chowder we'd had just a few days earlier in Santa Cruz. In short: perfect.
real New England Clam Chowder at Swan Oyster Depot
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.
By the time we'd finished our chowder and oysters we still hadn't made up our mind what the next act was going to be. Luckily, we'd struck up a conversation with a Swan regular named "Pat" who was sitting next to us, and she became a consultant of sorts for us. We debated the pros and cons of various dishes and combination dishes then finally settled on an unlikely combo. You see, we don't have any shortage of good smoked salmon back in Montreal (between the in-house smoked salmon at Leméac and the Wolf's Head smoked salmon that comes in from New Brunswick, we're pretty happy), but Swan had the most beautiful whole smoked salmon fillet laid out on their counter when we arrived, and I found it hard to take my eyes off it. When I asked Pat about it she said it was good, really good, "like candy," and that it was made locally by some guy near Point Reyes (if I remember correctly). I asked one of the counterhands how they serve it and he said they serve it as a platter with some bread (sourdough or rye) and whatever additional fixin's we wanted (capers, red onion, etc.). He said they could also do the smoked salmon as part of a combo platter with a shrimp salad. Michelle and I discussed the matter for another minute and then decided to get the combo with an upgrade to a Crab Louie in place of the shrimp salad. That smoked salmon was truly outrageous, and I had absolutely no regrets about ordering it. The Crab Louie was fresh and tangy, with big chunks of that oh-so-flavorful Dungeness Crab meat (it's naturally sweet and a little briny). We couldn't have been happier.
There were still plenty of temptations to be had at Swan when we finished, but we'd eaten well, and we'd been there for about an hour, so, god knows, there was a line-up of people patiently waiting to get in by that time. We paid our bill, paid a couple of fond farewells to Pat and the counter staff, and headed on our way.
Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk St., San Francisco, CA, (415) 673-1101