The state of San Francisco’s food criticism is in flux, as the city awaits the first review from new SF Chronicle critic Soleil Ho. In the meantime, the New York Times has unleashed its first review from recently appointed California critic Tejal Rao, joining the chorus of positive criticism for Angler, chef Joshua Skene’s follow-up to three-Michelin-starred Saison.
Angler, which landed at the top of Esquire’s best restaurants of the year list in 2018, is a “sealife-focused” restaurant. Early reviews questioned whether it’s growing reputation as the “casual Saison” was accurate given its upscale price tag and absolute legion of servers on hand. Like Saison, it’s high-end in service, ingredients, technique, and price, but also a la carte, giving diners the opportunity to choose their own dining adventure.
But if there’s one theme that ties Angler reviews together so far, it’s that this restaurant is the most. Here, fruit tastes more like fruit than ever before. Radicchio looks “like something fresh and bloody and still alive,” per Rao. In his own write up at a new publication, former SF Chron critic Michael Bauer called it “Saison on steroids.” And, almost everyone has mentioned the never-ending playlist of ’80s music that accompanies a visit.
“Though few diners appear to enjoy it, Mr. Skenes shrugged this off. He said the well-known music is meant to make people relax,” writes Rao (though one could argue that listening to “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners during a very expensive caviar course is anything but relaxing).
Most importantly, Rao is able to slice through the word “spinoff,” the designation most often used to describe Angler in relation to Saison (this publication included). Angler is not just an expansion, it’s a straight-up biological evolution of Skenes’s cooking style, ethos, and vision.
Rao has identified the restaurant’s relentless attention to detail (which Esquire’s Jeff Gordinier identified as a “twisted fixation”) as “directing diners away from predictable pleasures.” That means diving deep into the less-prolific bounty of the sea, using ingredients like moon jellyfish and sea cucumbers, eschewing fish flown in from Japan and other less sustainable options.
Meanwhile, vegetables receive the same treatment as meat. They’re roasted, dehydrated, sliced into primal cuts, aged, and sometimes served with a bib:
A raw radicchio, served whole, is drenched in an extraordinary, messy dressing so that when you carve into it, it looks like something fresh and bloody and still alive. In its layers, between its burgundy leaves, are pieces of charred radicchio mixed with aged garlic and shallots, which deepen the leaves’ bitterness and lends them an almost dank, animal quality as they crunch and splatter. Servers are likely to bring out a bib, but don’t be offended.
Rao’s assessment is that though this restaurant is very, very serious about its ingredients, it’s ultimately “a delicious distraction” for diners. At Angler, the hard work of sustainability and adaptation to a changing climate has been done, and it’s time to reap the rewards. Read the full review here.