In the space that used to be Bar Crudo is a restaurant called Swell. Quite frankly, it is so close to what Bar Crudo was in its realization as to be spooky. Well, similar in style, presentation and quality of seafood without the wait, crowd, or hype. There is also a more accessible menu insofar as small bites are concerned.
I learned all this late one afternoon when BFF Lisa and I were wandering around Union Square, trying yet again to decide where to eat that might be different and off-radar. I had completely forgotten about the restaurant’s existence after Bar Crudo departed and considering it was a Tuesday, we weren’t even sure it was going to be open. Walking in around 7:00 in the evening, we were really pleased to get a table. Once we finished our meal, we were more surprised they weren’t packed.
While we pondered the menu, we decided to start with a dozen oysters and I ordered a glass of Riesling from Chile to accompany — mostly because I have never tasted a Chilean Riesling. Our waitress instead suggested something I had never tried, Picpoul de Pinet, by Felines Jourdan from Languedoc. She was really fabulous; not only in the wine recommendation but also in bringing me a taste of the Chilean Riesling and a Domaine Auchere Sancerre, which I would have normally ordered with oysters. Her suggestion was spot on and a great complement to the oysters.
In wanting to try as many dishes as possible, we started with the larger portion of a Chef Tasting Platter; four selections for $22. For $15, you can start with three. And getting one taste of each kind was perfect for the two of us as $11 for four intense and interesting samplings was very intriguing. Lisa and I indicated that we would be very happy if one of the selections would include sea urchin, a particular favorite of ours. Our first four tastes:
Sashimi Grade Yellow Fin Tuna – Ample perfectly squared cuts of yellow fin tuna sits atop slices of Haas avocado with a bit of shiro dashi and sesame seeds. Very rich and quite good.
Dayboat Scallops – Fileted scallops wrapped around matchstick slices of crisp, green Granny Smith apples all topped with wasabi caviar and yuzu aïoli. This was a stunner of a combination. The rich scallop with creamy aïoli provided a rich juxtaposition with the clean, juicy apples.
Smoked Ocean Trout – Prepared with red beet gelée, wasabi-crème fraîche, and quail egg. Here the red beet gelée was prepared and used the way seaweed nori would be in a classic nigiri offering, clutching the delicately smoked trout. The fish and beet preparation sat beneath the ever-so-slightly-spicy wasabi crème fraîche and perfectly hard-boiled quail egg.
Santa Barbara Sea Urchin – With Asian pear wrap, nori, apple aïoli, and jalapeño. Served on a slice of cucumber, the waitress advised us to consume the fish combination separate from the cucumber as the vegetable component would overwhelm the rest. What was the most anticipated of all the crudo offerings proved to be the most disappointing. Perhaps because we were dining on a Tuesday and very often fresh fish is not brought in but used from the weekend, we found the uni lacking in freshness and the preparation to be the least enticing.
Of all the previous four, it was the scallops which were the most exciting with the smoked trout a close second. The tuna was very good, but with so many avocado and sashimi-grade fish offerings in the city, it was not as memorable as the other selections. Still a little hungry and very intrigued with the rest of the menu, we decided on another Chef Tasting of Four, this time getting a few cooked items on the platter.
Rhode Island Fluke – With pickled ginger, citrus salad and rice crispies. An another interesting crunch component with the light rice crispy added a very textural element but the citrus and ginger were too similar in tangy flavors to balance out the clean fluke. It was only the addition of the little sea bean which made the dish more interesting.
Coconut Ceviche of Kampachi – Served with sea bean, red onion, and rice chips. The texture of raw fish, pickled vegetable, and crunch with a hint of coconut was intriguing, but there was a little too much of the rice chip although I can understand why it needed to be that size, to hold the dressed kampachi.
Miso Black Cod Brûlée – Served with purple potato salad, this was a universally loved concoction. The black cod with its miso marinade and slightly browned exterior had a skillfully prepared amount of sweetness which paired well with the rich, creamy potatoes.
Tuna Tartare – Prepared very similarly to a tartare recipe I grew to love when I worked for Joachim Splichal’s Patina group in Los Angeles, almost a decade ago. Freshly cut tuna, dressed with with black sesame and a hint of sesame oil plated atop finely slivered and pickled seaweed. I could eat a large plate of this.
Lisa was not interested in dessert but the waitress described the flavors of a Crème Brûlée sampler and I couldn’t resist; ginger, miso, and coffee. Our waitress insisted it was not too much and that just a few spoonfuls of each flavor would not be too overwhelming. Lisa was determined to not eat more than a bite or two but within just one taste of each flavor and we knew there was no way to not consume each one – and scrape out a little at the end with our fingers… The ginger was spicy enough with a strong, piquant taste that I adore. The coffee was rich and pungent, the way I like it – almost bitter with coffee taste. But it was the miso which was the surprise. Almost the way a salted caramel gives just enough salt taste to counter-balance the sweetness of a caramel, the umami and saltiness of the miso worked enticingly well with the sweet candied top of the crème brûlée.
There were a handful of larger dishes I would like to go back and try; a lobster bisque, a beef tartare, and bouillabaisse. Glad to have rediscovered the spot and looking forward to repeat visits.
Pictures on Feast: http://feast-blog.com/swell/
655 Divisadero Street, San Francisco, CA 94117