POLK Street is known for one thing and one thing only and that’s the Swan Oyster Depot. A San Francisco institution, this fish shop and oyster bar has been serving up the city’s best seafood since 1912.
Very little has changed at the Swan since it was first opened. Its century-old bar shows its years as it stretches across the almost length of the restaurant. It’s just wide enough to make room for the six of so guys that work behind it. There’s a picture of Sal Sancimino whom brought the business back in 1946 with his cousins. It’s Sal’s children that run the restaurant today. There are signed sports jerseys, memorabilia, hand-drawn menus and posters of fish. You can still buy the fish direct or have it delivered.
There is no pretence to the Swan. There are no reservations, no booking system. True to the definition of a neighbourhood joint, it is cash only. Named one of America’s Classics by the James Beard Foundation in 2000, the restaurant sits eighteen, nineteen at most. The queue to get in can be an hour-long if you’re lucky, but there’s no rush. Waiting is a part of the experience and wait we did on three separate occasions.
The first and second we gave up with hunger, seeking solace elsewhere. Telling ourselves that it wasn’t as good as we remembered but yeah, we would try again that afternoon. And so we did, discovering an even greater line than we did at lunch. Had we missed something? Had there been a recent Saveur feature? Surely, we hadn’t waited this long last time. And so we left, vowing not to return, reconciled to the fact that this was surely an oyster that got away.
But is there anything in life as good as an oyster?
And so we went back, this time at 10.15 - fifteen minutes before opening time, to discover a smaller line. It was 18 persons deep, a crowd that was obviously more in the know than we were.
Did we dine? Oh yes, we did. Once seated, thoughts of a dozen oysters on the half-shell - Blue Points, Miyagi and Kumamoto were soon forgotten when our neighbourhood invited us to sample some Boston Cherrystone clams.
Drunk on the sea, they were a revelation. Firm, muscular and dosed in mignonette, they were sensational. Six turned into twelve and we were off. Boston chowder, more clams - this time with Little Necks, liberal servings of sourdough bread.
But the star of the show was the sashimi salad, so fresh, so tantalising - it rose from the plate like a mermaid’s siren. It was perhaps the most reverent homage to the sea that we had ever tasted: the body of the scallop thinly sliced, small chunks of red-blood tuna that came from a fillet that can only be described as majestic. Halibut and salmon, so expertly handled, that each slice tasted a new.
We drunk champagne, almost smug, in the knowledge that we had conquered the oyster.
To make your own version of the Swan Oyster Depot sashimi salad:
Swan Oyster Depot sashimi salad
Lightly drizzle a plate with extra olive oil
Cut sashimi-grade fish into thin slices and assemble in a circular pattern around the plate (see below)
Once finished, add finely diced red shallots and a tablespoon of capers
Squeeze two wedges of lemon
Season with a generous amount of freshly ground pepper