Cioppino’s – San Francisco, CA
400 Jefferson Street
San Francisco, CA
Big groups require big spaces to eat. Case in point, our party of eight needed ample space to stretch out as well as to be grouped together for a final farewell dinner in San Fran. With many of us wanting to do some walking around just to see more than the downtown core where we’d spent most of our week, we ended up trekking along the water front and ended up at Cioppino’s for our evening meal. This place fit the bill as we could see other large parties inside and even got a space up on the top level tired ares that seemed more suited to diners in tables of five or more. It had a kind of mess hall feel to it, but we were not that close to the other rambunctious gatherings taking place but not too isolated so that we felt neglected, it was a perfect balance.
Apparently, this establishment has a decent history serving up hearty Italian and seafood cuisine. I’m sure it falls into the realm of the tourist lot, given its location. But turns out, it didn’t feel that kitschy at all and could have been even better if on a smaller scale with more focused service and attention. There are times when ambiance and scale really do make a difference in the whole dining experience – and this was one of them. Perhaps they were smaller when they started, but now are a full fledged, large scale operation. A decent choice of draft beers (including the local Anchor Steam, and Big Daddy IPA) and red wines (Sonoma, Napa Valley) gave us a good way to get our appetites going further.
For some assistance in working off the evening chill after being outside for a good hour already, I opted for a cup of the white clam chowder (aka new England-style). This was an improvement over the one I had the previous night, with some definite heft to it with the diced potatoes that were not broken down too much, and seasoned with the saltiness that only a good quality bacon (probably pancetta?) can provide. I guess I was pre-disposed to liking it, as I’d been on a serious clam chowder mission on this trip. For about a dollar and a half more, I could have gone with the bowl sized portion, but alas, needed to save room for my main meal.
Across from me, a pair was sharing this plate of the fresh, fried calamari that was served with some wedges of lemon and a cocktail sauce (no doubt commercially-made). Breaded not too densely and of course the deep fried variety. I had a nibble or two as I couldn’t help myself. Again, came away pleased as this was deliciously seasoned and not loaded with garlic. Some unevenness in the sizes of the pieces though would be my only complaint, as you had to dig to find the really juicy and fully intact rings.
Similarly, three of our table had this signature cioppino. It rang in at a hefty $28, but hey what are expense accounts for. This was a massive cornucopia of ocean delights and was topped with a good sized slice of sourdough that was toasted. Incorporated into the rich broth were some mussels, whitefish, prawns, clams, and even some crab (the dungeness that I’ll talk about later). Predominantly infused with the sweet and tart tomato flavorings that make this dish work, it was well made and had seafood written all over it as I took a spoonful for my personal tasting. My com padres struggle with the bowl as it was quite heavy and massive to eat along.
The romance and nostalgia that accompanies any kind of fisherman’s soup like this cioppino – there’s a wonderful story of how its named, look it up – is why I love the ocean and the bounty that it provides, especially when so many ingredients are put together into one. I think any major fishing culture, be it in the Mediterranean, the Pacific, etc. all have their own take on an ocean catch stew. I’m sure I would love every last one of them. This Italian variety is definitely one of them. One last note, the menu booklet had a big long explanation and narrative of the history of this dish, made for an interesting read. Check it out if you’re ever here. I know for me, if I ever do make my way back, I’m going for this meal next time.
And now to to my main. Or rather main event. The tools of deconstruction were neatly laid out by my server on my napkin. Kind of looks almost dental clinic by nature, but believe me, these trusty tools are needed in order to eat.
What you ask? Of course, a whole dungeness crab! The menu noted it was served with a side of “drawn butter” and a choice of rice pilaf, seasonal vegetables or cole slaw. Not much flexibility with the sides as they only allow one, so had to get my neighbor (who ordered the same crab dish) to get one and I another so we could get a taste of both. Prices at $29, there were three choices in terms of how you had this prepared. The first which was labeled “traditional”, steamed in a mix of their own spices and herbs. Next up was “roasted garlic”, steamed in a roasted garlic lemon butter sauce. This was what I had. And third, “blackened”, which involved steaming and cooked with cajun spices. I was really pleased with the one I ordered. It was first of all massive in size. Big claws full of meat. The legs were also packed with meat, not too “hollow” with air at all. The aromatic garlic butter sauce that was draped all over the top and inside the meat of the body cavity was highly addictive and had me wanting more. All in all, this was a great way to enjoy a final seafood meal in San Francisco.