Archive for the ‘Coastal Rivalries’ Category

Swan Oyster Depot vs. Pearl Oyster Bar: Bicoastal Bivalve Smackdown

August 16, 2007

In addition to being substations on “Lost,” the Swan and the Pearl are also the names of rival West and East Coast oyster houses. I haven’t been inside either hatch, but I have been to both restaurants, so I’ll focus my comments on the latter. Below are a few key points of comparison.

1) Oysters: Swan’s shucker-servers know and love their oysters like no one else, but it’s the West Village seafood house that takes the category thanks to remarkable freshness and flavor in their half dozen and dozen size plates. Could have been an off-day for the SF stalwart, but Swan’s Kumamotos and Olympias were a bit past their prime on my visit: Not 311 health crisis bad, like Grand Central Oyster Bar on Friday of a long summer weekend, but not good either. Interestingly, the oyster liquor was the highlight at Pearl, better than the Sea Jello snots themselves.

2) Sides: Pearl has a winner here as well in their thinner than Steak ‘n Shake numbers served hot salty and perfect. They reminded me—in a good way—of the canned jobs we used to eat at Camp Kooch-i-Ching. The preferred beverage pairing back then was “Bug Juice”, a generic Kool-Aid we drank by the gallon. Unfortunately, the candied cloying house Riesling at Pearl was eerily similar. Swan’s bread and butter are local laudable and delicious but just not interesting enough to carry the category.

3) Booze: The much more modest Swan list takes the prize with a limited selection of wines and beers that liven up the food without overwhelming it. On tap Anchor Steam beat all Pearl’s beer options and and King Estate Pinot Gris by the glass made the case for Oregon’s move beyond Pinot Noir. It also makes the case for Pearl adding to its underwhelming wine list.

4) Service: Swan by a long shot. Swan’s server-shuckers have a classic gruff competence because they’ve always been gruff and competent, and with four or five family members behind the bar, there’s no risk of getting lost in the noise. Pearl’s overcrowded and undermanned bar is competently covered, but the nudge to leave turns to a push as soon as your fork scrapes empty plate. Also, singleton diners get short shrift, even though they clearly help keep the lunchtime cash cow mooing.

5) Overall: Two winners playing different games. Each restaurant builds on different expectations and succeeds in surpassing them. Pearl is much more of a full service establishment with real starters, mains and desserts. Swan is a much more soulful and delicious version of Grand Central Oyster Bar’s shucking counter. Go to Swan for a late morning or late afternoon snack–closed by dinner time, packed at noon—and go to Pearl for a real meal at the start or end of service when seating is easier to come by. Either way, go. And if you figure out what the numbers on “Lost” mean, let me know.


Taylor’s Automatic Refresher vs. Shake Shack

July 27, 2007

A brief side by side comparison of New York and San Francisco’s top contenders for best open air burger joint.

1) Burgers: Shake Shack
Avoid the secret sauce. The meat at both places is too well cooked to need the moisture enhancement and too richly flavored to need the coverup. Taylor’s Automatic Refresher’s version has a great charred taste; Shake Shack’s has a rich poolside grill flavor.

After much ruminating and a few return visits, I have to give the nod to the Shack for meat flavor. Their mix of meat cuts is simply the most delicious I’ve encountered—great at any doneness from still-breathing to medium. Shake Shack also wins on the all important bun to burger to cheese ratio. The balance makes the whole far more than the sum of the parts, and with this kind of beef and potato bun, the parts are pretty great.

2) Shakes: Shake Shack
The name sets the bar pretty high, but it’s not the shakes that win the day; it’s the concretes. Taylor’s Automatic Refresher does a great vanilla shake with Double Rainbow ice cream, even if mine was melted on the first order of the day. It just can’t compare to frozen custard concretes, particularly the Wednesday peach offering that has me lining up right around a rational person’s brunch time.

3) Fries: Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
Garlic and parsley ries were unbelievably garlicky in a zippy and refreshing way. I wouldn’t have minded them a few degrees warmer, but they top Shake Shack’s crinkle cuts any day. Gilroy is the promised land of the stinking rose.

4) Wine and beer list: Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
The list is long, gently priced and burger friendly. Shake Shack’s list is also good, but they don’t have anywhere near as many half bottles and they can’t do real wine glasses in a park. Their draft selection is also limited. Taylor brings elegance and variety to the booze and burger experience with lovely glassware, additional indoor seating and no mosquitoes.

5) Location: Tie
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace has a great city view and even better water and bridge views if you take it to go. That said, I love gazing at the Flatiron building from Shake Shack in New York’s Madison Park, and it’s nice to picnic under real trees (or metal ones this summer).

Conclusion: Shake Shack Wins
In this West Coast/East Coast rivalry, both contenders have their virtues, but the Shake Shack takes the tourney by a hair, or rather, by a beautiful rich lush perfect patty of brisket enriched beef perfection. In the end, it all comes down to what’s between the buns.

Coming soon: Swan Oyster Depot vs. Pearl Oyster Bar