Skool

A pizza oven in a seafood house? Skool gives a lesson in intriguing, if sometimes overwhelming, synergy

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PHOTO BY RORY MCNAMARA

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE When, in the course of human events, you come across a wood-fired pizza oven in a seafood house — in a seafood house tending in the direction of a sushi bar, no less — you probably blink twice, wondering if you've somehow mixed up your meds. But no: step into Skool and there it is, flickering on your left. There is a small catch (!) to stepping into Skool, and that's finding it in the first place. The restaurant, which opened early in July, lies in a nameless border country surrounded by Mission Bay, Potrero Hill, and the gallery district.

Fifteen or 20 years ago this bricky warehouse neighborhood was deserted at night, and even today, you'd never think you were at the corner of 16th and Valencia streets. Compounding the mystery is the reticence of Skool itself; the restaurant's street face is a row of tall steel posts, like some kind of barrier to keep tanks from rolling through, marked only by a graphic of an orange fish.

From a checkpoint-like gate you trek steadily uphill, around three sides of an open-air patio, until you finally step inside and find yourself under a firmament of halogen-spot stars, on a loft-like concrete planet forested with gorgeous wood furniture, some pieces of which (I am thinking in particular of the long communal table) look as though they could have come from the workshop of Gustav Stickley himself. It's sleek, elegant, open, and warm, and the wood makes all the difference.

The restaurant's style of cooking both does and doesn't belong in such a setting. It, too, is sophisticated and urban, but — unlike the interior design — it too often goes too far and seems complex for the sake of being complex. The servers are well-drilled in explaining the nuances of the menu and the ingredients that grace the various specials, but the recitations, in their extensive and ruthless precision, made me feel as if I were watching one of those pharmaceutical ads on television, with their windy warnings about side effects that can include drowsiness, dizziness, and sudden death, not to mention certain phenomena lasting more than four hours.

The kitchen's tendency seems to be not to let high-quality ingredients speak in their own voice without being interrupted — a kind of culinary version of SPIRD (smartest person in the room disorder). We were assured, for instance, that the cubed halibut in the ceviche ($11) was "sashimi grade," yet it was inflamed with serrano chili and cilantro — two items I love, but they can overwhelm the delicacy of pale-fleshed fish. House-cured sardines ($10) held up a little better, with their oiliness and firmness of flesh not disappearing in the presence of raspberried onion, herb oil, and pillows of ripe avocado. But still, it was a struggle.

A straightforward bowl of squid-ink spaghettini ($17) turned out to be a treasure trove of complexity, with Monterey Bay squid and local white shrimp bathed in a broth of lemongrass, red curry, seaweed butter, and diced tomatoes. These flavors were harmoniously blended, and the look of the dish was striking — a mass of writhing purple-black filaments, like a wig from a character in a Pixar movie — but it did seem to lack a clear direction. A lot of voices, skillfully directed, can become a choir, but they can also turn into a tower of Babel.

Spiced panko salmon ($18) — a thick, shapely filet crusted on one side with bread crumbs — was served atop a sauté of green and yellow wax beans. It was moist and flavorful, but so rich I felt as if I was eating a stick of butter. The fish had been "pan grilled" — in butter?

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