THERE’S USUALLY A line outside the Swan Oyster Depot restaurant on Polk St. in the tony Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. And it was no different when my cab driver, Jonathan from Cameroon, dropped me curbside at 11 a.m. for lunch on a bluebird day in late winter.
I was sandwiched between an auto insurance executive from Dallas in town for a convention and a Dominican chef and restaurant owner on vacation from Nantucket. The insurance salesman, a religious man with a wrist reminder of what to do in an emergency, the gay chef, whose husband (his reference) did not eat seafood but chose instead to wait by walking the neighborhood, and me, an uncomplicated man on a quest for his favorite protein. The conversation was respectful, open and honest. Ahhh, America, the prism of where we have been and where we are headed right there on the sidewalk outside a culinary institution waiting—for 45 minutes— to break bread together.
Oyster Depot is somewhat of a misnomer as most clients sidle up, on counter seats only, as much for Dungeness crab as for the long list of bivalves. What our local Casamento’s is to purveyors of oysters, Swan is to Dungeness crab lovers. Yes, there are other menu items—oysters, lobster, clams, smoked salmon, octopus, uni (sea urchin) and clam chowder which happened to be the only hot dish I noticed on the menu. But I’m there for the Crab Louie salad, sourdough bread to dip into a crab shell filled with stock and crab fat, and an Anchor Steam or two. Bourdain would be pleased.
The Crab Louie did not disappoint as the sweet, delicate meat was every bit the match for our blue crabs. I’m a fan of our male blue crabs as much for the meat as for the delicate, creamy yellow fat. Good news for female Dungeness crabs in the audience as it is illegal to catch, cook and serve them to customers.
Swan reminds me of local oyster bars in that customers can witness the freshest catch pried open and served as you wait. Where Swan differs is that you may watch as a professional uses scissors to open a sea urchin, remove the uni, and plate it for a customer, long black spines still moving.
I bade my new acquaintances farewell and caught a cab with Nicholas from Brazil to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for a Brassai photography exhibit and to walk off lunch.
You don’t need to travel to the great Northwest to enjoy my favorite seafood. And in this recipe you can use any kind of crabmeat, fresh or frozen.
Corn, Crab, Shrimp and Poblano Bisque
1 pound crab meat, picked over for shells
2 pounds headless shrimp
3 cups frozen or fresh shucked corn kernels
2 poblano peppers, charred and peeled
1 ½ cups any dry white wine or pinot grigio
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium white onions, roughly chopped
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
2 celery stalks, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1 leek, sliced–white and yellow part only
1 bunch green onions–sliced white part only, reserve tops
6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
1 bundle of 6 thyme sprigs tied with cotton twine
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons flour
1 quart shrimp stock
1 quart chicken stock
2 cups heavy cream
1. Place whole poblanos rubbed with vegetable oil on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes in a 450 degree oven.
Turn every five minutes until evenly charred. Cover with plastic wrap in a bowl for 15 minutes. Then peel, seed and chop.
2. Peel the shrimp, put tails aside in fridge and place the shells in a dry skillet. Cook on medium heat until the shells
begin to brown. Add the wine and reduce liquid, then add five cups water and bring to a full boil. Lower heat and
simmer 20 minutes. Strain stock to remove shells.
3. Heat the oil on medium high in an 8 quart stock pot and then add the butter.
4. When butter foams, add the onion and stir for two minutes. Then add carrots, bell pepper, poblano pepper, celery,
green onions and saute’ for two minutes.
5. Add the garlic, herbs, spices and hot sauce. Stir for two minutes.
6. Stir in the flour and cook for two minutes.
7. Add the shrimp stock slowly, bring to a boil and simmer for three minutes.
8. Allow to cool, remove bay leaf and thyme stems, puree in batches in a blender or in the pot with an immersion
blender. Return soup to pot, add chicken stock and corn, bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer 30 minutes.
9. Add the shrimp and simmer for five minutes. Then add the crab and cream and heat just to a boil.
10. Finish with green onion tops.