This spring, the 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef will cook sustainable California seafood over open fire at the Beverly Center. Unlike Saison, Angler is a restaurant that Skenes has designed to be scalable.
At Angler, a seafood-focused restaurant that opened on the Embarcadero in San Francisco last September, chef Joshua Skenes wants the dishes to taste as natural as possible. The space has tanks for live seafood, and a biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium worked with Skenes to “sustain the correct biological environment” for crustaceans in the restaurant.
“So it ends up tasting like the ocean and not like a tank,” the chef says. “We’ve got seaweed in there that’s live, and we put things together. King crabs apparently like spot prawns. King crabs usually eat whatever they want. They’ve eaten lobster and other things.”
This might sound unfortunate for a restaurant that spends a lot of effort and money procuring sustainable California seafood, but Skenes does see an upside. Eating other crustaceans makes a king crab more delicious. Plus, Skenes has a financial solution. He simply adds the value of the seafood consumed by a king crab to the menu price for the crab. The way the food chain works in San Francisco means that the king crab that ate 27 spot prawns was purchased for $1,540 and grilled at Angler, which has an open kitchen with an expansive wood-burning hearth as its centerpiece.
By the way, Angler is the more casual of the two San Francisco restaurants founded by Skenes, whose tasting-menu destination Saison recently maintained its three Michelin stars with new executive chef Laurent Gras.
Skenes, who was named a 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef for his work at Saison, is serving incredible seafood at Angler. But unlike Saison, Angler is a restaurant that Skenes has designed to be scalable. Angler, with its “simple” mission of getting the freshest ingredients and cooking them over open fire, plans to open an L.A. location at the Beverly Center in the spring. There’s a chance that L.A.’s Angler debuts in April, but Skenes is wise enough to know that “construction is the devil,” so he’s not ready to announce a specific date.
The L.A. space will be larger than the one in San Francisco, so Skenes will have a bigger, better-equipped kitchen for his open-fire setup. That’s one advantage of moving into a brand-new space rather than inhabiting something that had previously housed another restaurant. (The San Francisco location was previously home to Chaya Brasserie.) San Francisco’s Angler has about 100 seats, and there might be 20 more in L.A.
Dinner at Angler in San Francisco can easily cost more than $100 per person with alcohol. Skenes says the L.A. outpost will be similarly priced, but he knows that being in a different city means making some adjustments. (There are also plans for a Seattle Angler, in the Bellevue area, that might open in 2021.) A lot of it will depend on what ingredients Skenes gets in Southern California.
“It’s all based on the product,” he says. “We’re in the R&D phase, and it’s about getting what exists locally. I really love L.A. and Orange County and all the surrounding areas. There’s so much great shit down there. My wife is from Orange County, and her family grows like every fruit that exists in their backyard. It’s fucking Jumanji. It’s amazing. There’s dragonfruit and all the herbs you see at a Vietnamese restaurant. There’s jackfruit and all kinds of citrus.”
Skenes is also excited to see what Southern California fishermen send him.
“Fishing in Northern California is hard, man,” Skenes says. “I respect the shit out of the fishermen out here because it’s so turbulent and the coastline is so rough. I’m not saying fishing in Southern California is easy in any way, but it’s not as punishing. Maybe there will be a little more variety of some species.”
It might sound funny to say that one of L.A.’s biggest restaurant openings in 2019 will be a mall restaurant that’s an outpost of something already in another city. But the Beverly Center, which already includes Cal Mare, Yardbird, and Farmhouse, is creating a formidable dining collection. And San Francisco’s Angler, which Food & Wine named as one of 2018’s biggest openings, is as high-profile as any new restaurant in the country. Esquire’s Jeff Gordinier named it as his best new restaurant of 2018. Newly appointed New York Times California restaurant critic Tejal Rao has also raved about Angler.
Most of the seafood that Angler serves is from the California coast, including Santa Barbara and Humboldt County. (An exception I enjoyed on a recent visit to Angler in San Francisco was a pristine scallop from Maine day-boat legend Sue Buxton, who also supplies scallops to other great restaurants like L.A.’s Viale dei Romani.) There are big plates of resplendent little abalone. There’s an over-the-top presentation of black truffle shaved atop a luxurious Dungeness crab porridge.
As Rao wrote in her review of Angler, the current commercial season for Dungeness crab in parts of Northern California was delayed because of a high level of domoic acid, an algae-produced neurotoxin that’s linked to climate change. In Humboldt County, for example, the season didn’t start until January 25, after multiple delays. Having Dungeness crab seems like a gift now, and Angler is making the most of it.
Angler isn’t a restaurant that wants to pound you over the head with details about its food. With the exception of oysters and clams, there isn’t any information on the menu about where seafood is sourced. (The menu does point out that the butter served with bread is made with dairy from Petaluma cows, which might answer one question about why bread and butter cost $12. One bite of the wonderful Parker House rolls might answer another question.) Skenes says he likes the fast-paced energy and attentive-but-not-cloying service at restaurants like Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills, where the goal is giving customers a high-end dining experience that also seems simple and fun “without the stories and silliness.”
The San Francisco Angler’s dining area, with its taxidermied animals and big, comfortable chairs, is designed for a relaxing experience. For dessert, there’s a soft-serve sundae with caramel warmed by the fire. It’s like the best version of a McDonald’s dessert.
“It’s about a great meal,” Skenes says. “It’s a hedonistic approach. We don’t want to educate people. We just want people to have a good time.”
Many diners at Angler might never learn that Skenes serves antelope tartare because he appreciates how the farms he uses in California and Texas lets antelopes roam free and forage, which results in meat that tastes wild.
“It tastes like a real meat, not like grain or corn,” says Skenes, who is an avid hunter and fisherman himself.
Another standout meat dish on the seafood-heavy menu is a whole pastured chicken, prepared in the style of Beijing duck cooked over open fire. At Angler, Skenes is mainly burning hickory and oak, along with some almond wood and fruit woods, in his hearth. His goal with the chicken was to figure out how to simultaneously cook the breast, thigh, and skin perfectly. He succeeded. The meat is moist, the skin crackles, and there’s a hint of smokiness that might indeed remind you of wood-and-coal-fired Beijing duck but also should satisfy fans of Texas barbecue chicken.
All this said, one of the most memorable dishes I ate at Angler was neither seafood nor meat. It was a plate of radicchio. I guess you could call this thing a salad, but the dish splashes and gushes in a way that resembles blood. That’s why you get a bib when you order it. The radicchio is topped with a combination of reduced beet juice, soy sauce, shallots, and garlic that magically creates something like the flavor and texture of XO sauce without any dried seafood or pork. Bar director Brandyn Tepper smiled as he looked at our table and said that the dish comes with “a huge mess.” The mess seems like a vital ingredient.
Even eating vegetables at Angler can feel like a primal experience. The bibs are a statement of purpose. It’s fine to make a mess. The goal is to make a mess. Nature, of course, is about messes. It’s about crazy colors and flavors and textures. It’s about predators devouring prey before being eaten themselves.
“The whole idea is to get everything as close to nature as possible, to take it out of the ocean and just grill it, to take it right out of the dirt and use it quickly,” Skenes says. “It’s all really simple, man. It’s the way it should be, but it’s a rarity in a regular restaurant setting in America. … The rest of the world knows this already. They’ve known this for a long time. You go to Spain and you go to Italy and you go to Japan, and there’s a built-in system. You get some live stuff and you cook it.”
Skenes hopes to see more chefs and restaurants in America take this approach to food. That would result in better infrastructure for ingredients, more readily available product, and lower prices for fresh items. Either way, he’s going to keep building his network of fishermen and reaching out to “small vessels.” He’ll keep serving lesser-known ingredients like moon jellyfish and invasive purple sea urchin. He’ll keep using seawater to create smoked salt for Angler’s private-batch caviar.
“Hopefully, one day we’ll have a scallop fishery,” says Skenes, who adds that the Pacific Ocean has lovely pink scallops.
I think he’s telling me this at least partially because he knows I ate a Maine scallop at his restaurant. He understand that it was an excellent scallop, and he gets why his team wants to serve it, but he’s also having a hard time reconciling it with the rest of the menu. He stresses that the vast majority of seafood he’s served at Angler has been from California. He might not feel the desire to tell his customers the backstory about all his seafood, but he wants the story to make sense in his head.
“It’s always a moving target,” Skenes says when I ask how the L.A. Angler might differ from the San Francisco one. “No matter where we take Angler, it’s an ethos and it’s a sensibility and it’s a way to put together pieces of the puzzle. And that changes based on the place.”