The port city of San Francisco, where eaters obsess over omakase and ceviche, is a town that loves fish. But now we’re spotting a fresh craving: there’s a new school of crudo appearing on upscale restaurant menus. And we’re not talking just one hamachi crudo in the appetizer section or single raw scallop before a prix-fixe, but entire menus or sections of menus dedicated to the clean flavors and delicate textures of raw fish. “San Francisco is a town that eats so much raw fish,” says chef Daniel Evers. “There are so many fancy sushi menus. So why not crudo?”
Evers is the chef of Itria, that new Cal-Italian spot that opened in earnest last summer in the Mission, where crudo makes up half of the menu, balancing out rich pasta. He — like all chefs interviewed for this story — asserts it’s simply how he likes to eat these days. “Raw fish is a great way to whet the palate,” Evers explains. “It’s clean and acidic. It wakes you up. And even within raw fish, there’s so much variation. It can be lean or fatty. There are different salinity and sweetness levels.” Itria has half a dozen crudos on the menu, with a goal to grow to 10 or more. Diners explore those a few different ways: snack on one or two; try one of everything; or do the new tasting menu, which is mostly crudo and a few pastas.
Serving raw fish is deceptively simple, and Evers treats his fish lightly in several different ways, borrowing from Italian and Japanese techniques. The amberjack gets a quick salt cure and vinegar rinse, before it’s thinly sliced across the grain, and finished with salsa de pane — finely toasted focaccia crumbs and citrus sunk in Ligurian olive oil. Fatty steelhead slides into a smoker filled with ice, then gets topped with crunchy radish, bright serrano, and caviar-like pops of finger lime. The kombu cure is the most involved, stacking firm white sea bream between hard sheets of seaweed, and sometimes the kitchen saves shells, so even if spot prawns are raw and sweet, they’re dotted with that distinct flavor.
At Le Fantastique, the new fish slash wine bar in Hayes Valley, the Bird Dog team also dives deep into the raw fish realm. “It’s my preferred method of consumption – white wine and raw fish,” says chef Robbie Wilson. “I could eat it every day. It’s stripped down and clean. It’s the purest expression of the fish.” His menu somewhat defies categorization, as the fine dining chef is taking his favorite raw course, and breaking it out into a full experience. “You can call it whatever you want. I’m not offended,” Wilson says. “But it’s not sashimi, it’s not crudo, it’s just raw fish.”
Le Fantastique serves seven or eight different types of raw fish, pulled from the Pacific, from the lightest fluke to the fattiest salmon. The restaurant has a temperature-controlled room where the fish hang tail up until they reach “toothsome” textures, Wilson says. He dips trout in beeswax, sealing it in floral flavor, before folding it into a tart sorrel leaf; he encases rich opah in animal fat and ages it for two months, turning it into ham with a finish of smoked vinegar. Compared to a rustic Sicilian plate with hunks of onion, which Wilson also loves, the knife work is finer and citrus comes in droplets or even atomizers. If that sounds like some fancy fish snacks for a supposedly chill wine bar, the diners dig it. Wilson reports some tables order every plate, and the ones that start with a few invariably come back for more.
Meanwhile, at Sorella in Nob Hill, that new little sister bar from the Acquerello team, there’s just one star crudo on the menu, although it anchors a section of fish snacks. Chef Denise St. Onge is serving a fun menu of cicchetti, or small dishes, and seafood has pride of place. “San Francisco is a seafood town, and many of our quintessential Italian-American dishes are seafood-focused,” she says. The team also considered how people are eating and socializing differently these days, and wanted to offer smaller and lighter bites. “Crudo is just always so enjoyable to eat,” she says. “It’s not a heavy presence. We always plan to have one on the menu.”
St. Onge is serving a hiramasa kingfish from Australia, similar to amberjack or yellowtail, which she brines, dries, and thinly slices, and tops with Sicilian olive oil and three forms of citrus: charred cara cara and blood oranges appear as both a gel and a powder, and crispy fried citrus zest takes it over the top. “I’m making it sound complicated, but it’s not,” the chef insists. She reports the crudo is a hit, although the kushi oysters topped with sea beans and finger limes are also popping, as well as her personal favorite razor clams with crispy breadcrumbs and octopus with charred suckers from the grill.
Penny Roma, the latest restaurant from the Flour + Water group, also has a tempting trio of crudos, and at Ernest nearby, a raw section variously calls dishes sashimis and carpaccios. Of these examples, there does seem to be a preponderance of fine dining dudes who are into this, so there might be some tweezer flexing going on. But even so, diners seem to be eating it up. So what is it with all the fancy fish snacks? Did we come out of the quarantine pizza delivery haze craving something fresh? Is it possible we’ve tired of tinned fish and moved on to raw fish?
Perhaps, these chefs allowed. But mostly, it seems to be a sea change in how both chefs and diners like to eat these days. “It’s the way I like to eat when I go out,” St. Onge says. “You can mix and match, and have a little feast — without overdoing it.”