Joshua Skenes's concept is one of the Bay Area's most highly anticipated openings, and with good reason.
“It’s all really designed around pleasure,” he says. “Is the music fun? Are the seats comfortable? When you pick up the silverware, does it work properly? When you first bite into the food, is it instantaneously pleasurable to the mouth?”
If the live-fire cooking perfected by Skenes at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant Saison is any indication, the answer to all of these questions is probably: Yes. The 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef built his reputation in the highest echelons of fine dining by dazzling Saison’s guests with ten-course tasting menus, featuring rotating small plates of wild moon jellyfish, uni on toast, and grilled abalone cradled in their iridescent shells, and now he's taking things a bit more casual, without sacrificing any of his refined sensibility.
Skenes, both a founder and owner of Saison as well as its longtime executive chef, says the idea for Angler has been percolating for years. “I started trying to convince fishermen to fish for me at Saison about eight years ago, because I just wanted different sea life products that were alive — I wanted everything alive,” he says. “A seafood restaurant just made sense.”
Now at $298 a person, Saison’s menu is consistently among the country’s priciest. At Angler, with its 116 seats to Saison’s 18, Skenes is going for a more relaxed feel, but one still defined by luxury — the “casual luxury that we kind of started at Saison,” he says. Eighties and nineties rock hums through the speakers (Skenes’s choice). Taxidermy animals line the walls. The toilet seats are even heated. Together these details telegraph the question, "Why don’t you stay a while?"
The main attraction, though, is the dining room’s 32-foot hearth and wood grill, where Angler executive chef Nicolas Ferreira will lead the kitchen in executing Skenes’s signature “fire in the sky” technique. Skenes says he and his team came up with this name years ago as a joke, but it stuck. Essentially, it’s “where a product goes above the fire and it cooks above [it] on a rack for sometimes three days or more,” he explains. Meat, for example, “gets cooked up there for three days, and it slowly kind of transforms… There’ll be some sort of second cooking method afterwards [where] you grill it or you baste it with butter, oil, whatever it is.”
Skenes’s signature emphasis on smartly sourced ingredients and straightforward presentation will carry through to his new venture. Smaller dishes like cured amberjack and antelope tartare will be priced from $12 to $28, with mains like Monterey abalone and California king crab priced from $20 to $48. The menu is based on what is most freshly available from Skenes’s distributors, particularly the local small-boat fishermen.
“I gave these guys zero requirements in terms of variety,” Skenes says. “I said, ‘Just bring me anything that’s alive.’ It has to sustainable — truly sustainable, not like the marketing term but genuinely — and that’s it. We’ve got some amazing stuff because of that.”
Angler showcases this freshness on more than just plates: Next to the hearth, live tanks house fish, urchin, and more during their short stays on the way to the kitchen.
Skenes is just as exacting about the quality of his land products, which are an integral part of the Angler menu, too: whole pastured chicken, hot grilled rabbit, and a 28-ounce bone-in porterhouse are among the menu highlights. Skenes lists the questions he asks when sourcing: “How was the animal husbandry practiced? What’s the diet? Is it roamed freely, like an animal should in nature?” Skenes considers himself a hunter, or, as he puts it, “I’m a grocery shopper, and the forest is where I prefer to get my meat.”
Saison’s co-founder and wine director Mark Bright has joined as founder and wine director of Angler, where he will focus on Burgundy, Rhone, and Loire Valley picks.
Angler represents the realization of a dream for Skenes, but it’s not the first dream he had. Before joining the restaurant industry, “I thought I was going to open up a martial arts studio and teach martial arts for the rest of my life,” he says. But the energy and adrenaline of the industry hooked him. With Angler, he’s hoping to hook a new set of San Francisco diners.
Angler, 132 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, 415.872.9442.