Some people, when they think of San Francisco, think of the Golden Gate Bridge, cute little trolley cars or City Lights book store.
When I think of San Francisco, I think of fish houses.
San Francisco has fish houses in the same way Detroit has chop houses--honest places that use the honest ingredients. Places like Tadich's or Sam's, with old dark wood walls and professional waiters who have been at work for 30 years.
At these places they wouldn't dream of serving mesquite-grilled ahi with cherry-chipotle salsa. This isn't food that screams "Look at me!"
The dishes are cooked simply--poached, broiled or sauteed--and served plainly--usually adorned with nothing more than butter, lemon and a little parsley. Side dishes are the likes of boiled parsleyed new potatoes and creamed spinach.
And the fish itself is simple too. Rarely do you see anything exotic from warm waters. Mostly, there is sole.
Actually, none of the West Coast flat fish are true soles, they are all members of the halibut family, specific to this side of the continent. But that's a matter of nomenclature, having nothing to do with taste.
Of the whole halibut bunch, I think sand dabs are my favorite. Rex sole is very good and, of course, so is the California halibut itself. But for my taste, sand dabs are the best eating, with their sweet sea flesh offset by a distinctive iodine-y edge.
They're also the most difficult to eat. Because the sand dabs are the smallest of the flat fish, each fillet has a thin, spiny-looking bone running its length (the fillets are so small there would be nothing left if they were boned before cooking). Though this looks like a backbone, it is actually the long set of feather bones that attaches the dorsal fins to the fish.
There's a nice little headwaiter's trick to getting rid of them. After the fish are cooked, run a knife down the middle of the fillet on the top side. Using a dull knife or a fork, push aside the meat on either side of the cut, dividing the meat neatly into two pieces. Grab one end of the exposed bone with your hand and gently lift, running the knife or fork underneath to separate the meat. Lift away the bone and you're done.
With this kind of fish, I think the simplest cooking is the best. And nothing's simpler than a saute meuniere (a French term said to refer to a miller's wife--flour is certainly involved).
Pat the fish dry, dredge it lightly in flour (pat it between your hands to remove the excess) and saute it quickly. Remove the fish to a warm platter and cover. Then simply brown a little butter to use as a sauce.
It couldn't be easier. And the best thing is, it means you really don't need San Francisco at all.
SAND DABS MEUNIERE 2 pounds cleaned sand dab fillets Salt 2 tablespoons oil 6 tablespoons butter Flour Juice 1/2 lemon
Pat fillets dry on both sides with paper towel. Sprinkle lightly with salt to taste.
Heat oil and 2 tablespoons butter in wide skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium-high heat. Put flour on plate. Lightly dip 1 fillet at time in flour on both sides, then shake off excess. Lay fillets in hot skillet. Repeat until skillet is fairly full, being careful not to crowd fillets. Fry until light-brown, 4 to 5 minutes, then turn fillets and finish cooking on other side, another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove cooked fillets to paper towels and keep warm in oven. Repat until all fillets are cooked.
Remove pan from heat and wipe clean with paper towels. Put remaining 1/4 cup butter in pan and cook over medium heat. Butter will foam, foam will subside, then butter will begin to brown and smell nutty. Remove pan from heat and add lemon juice. While butter is cooking, arrange sand dabs on warmed platter. Pour butter sauce over sand dabs and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about: 271 calories; 264 mg sodium; 89 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 0.01 grams fiber.