It’s funny how food writers look upon certain restaurants. San Francisco’s Angler, a Michelin one-star, is often referred to as a “sea-life focused restaurant,” perhaps because the restaurant’s marketing team is keen to promote the impeccable-sourcing and refined techniques executed by chef Josh Skenes and his team. But this focus on seafood does a disservice to the countless dishes that arrive without a whiff of the sea on them.
Witness a recent dinner I attended where the menu certainly included seafood but ranged across game meats, the common chicken and, most stunningly, vegetables.
Highland Park Whisky X Angler SF
Let’s be honest: I was there to eat while drinking whisky. Invited by Highland Park, the Orkney-based maker of Scottish single malts, my role that evening was to sample Angler’s cuisine, custom-crafted for pairing with 15, 18, 21 and 25 year-old single malts. What would whisky add to the experience? Excitement? Like salt, would it enhance the refined flavors of chef Skenes’ cuisine? Or would we all be talking about either the whisky or the food? As a food writer I thought I knew what would go down.
To whet the appetite, I began a whisky-soaked evening with a Don Lockwood, a cocktail I had never heard of that blended Highland Park’s 12 year-old with American bourbon, smoked maple and mole bitters. Can’t say I’ve ever had a cocktail with American and Scotch whiskies and whew, it went down too smooth. My edges softened, we sat down to a four-course paired dinner.
Course One: Angler Private Batch Caviar, Parker House rolls and 15-year old whisky
Seated across from Martin Markvardsen, a Dane who has spent a career as Highland Park’s global brand ambassador, I was treated to a short history of the Orkney Islands and some of the region’s curiosities. Did you know there is a town called Twatt on Mainland, the largest of its 70 islands? No, Markvardsen did not share that tidbit with me – I just thought it was funny.
Eight Parker House rolls, cradled in a copper-tinted pan, soon arrived, joined by petite cut-glass dishes, one holding cultured seaweed butter, another with a pointed elfin lid, house caviar. I took bumps of caviar straight from my hand to minimize flavor interference from any utensil, the fish egg brininess apparent yet surprisingly subtle. The 12-year-old whiskey, too, had a softness to it, a honeyed edge that gave way to a distinct brininess and a hint of the sherry cask in which it had been aged. The milky sweetness of the rolls and the briny fatness of the butter were a lovely combination on their own. With the fat coating my palate, a sip of whisky activated to create something akin to a “fat washed” cocktail, a trend that worked here to harmonize the flavors into something better than solo.
Course Two: Antelope tartare, radicchio with radicchio X.O., Highland Park 18-year-old
For this course, I really want to skip over the tartare part (slightly gamey, I wanted more salt) and tell you about the radicchio. First, look at that orb of individually arranged leaves. It presented like a hand-wrought piece of fine china. Delft, perhaps, though not quite translucent. Its leaves, spun skyward, hint at the sea – anemone? – a wave or a crest of seaweed peeping above shoreline foam. Take one and nestle some tartare inside. Hints of thyme and the tang of beet and meat.
Oh wait, there is a second radicchio, this one the more expected purple, its leaves arranged in a similarly natural yet stunning form. Who has grown such produce? Deep in contemplative mode of the wonders of soil, I nearly missed the service staff offering bibs. What could this portend? Take it. The deep purple splatters that result from leaf cuttings will stain your shirt or leave wine-colored stains on your pants. This radicchio, pant stains and all, is meant to be eaten on its own. Drizzled with XO sauce, its sweetness balanced by the savoriness of fish sauce, it was an ideal salad course for a meal aswirl with balanced oceanic flavors at every turn.
Into the radicchio mix, Highland lobbed its 18-year-old, the peat notes more distinct than on the 12, and a boisterous presence of citrus and warm spices. By this time, the 12-year-old and the 25-year-old had been poured and I found myself going back to the 25. While all the ages have a consistent, almost honeyed character, the 25 expressed a robustness through a balance of peat and spice notes – and something resembling menthol or mint? – that worked so well with the gamey brininess of the tartare and the radicchio. It was an irresistible duo. 25 forever!
Course Three: grilled hand-dived scallops; dry-aged Wagyu strip; whole roast chicken; Angler potato and sauce of Sonoma cheeses; brassicas with garum; grilled sunchokes with sunflower praline and chicken jus.
Too. Much. Food. Food writers are often presented with such abundance. You will see us try a taste of each, wondering where the excitement lies in such bounty. My eyes were immediately pulled not to the steak but to the potato and the scallops, humdrum fare that was anything but.
Potatoes are having a moment (see what I had to say about them on Local Getaways) and eating one at Angler was as fun as any other potato experience I have had of late. So thinly sliced, you could see your fork through the flesh, the Angler potato is a sideways Hasselback, its layers horizontal rather than vertical. I cannot imagine the multitude of steps it took to arrange some 30 slices of slippery potato, a work of craftsmanship with few equals. Placed in a cheese sauce pool, it was elegant and playful, toasty and rich. A dish for the memory bank.
Arranged around a sunny lemon half, the cut segments radiating out to the scallop “petals,” the scallops arrived, each on an individual plate, a distinct and playful family-style service that felt customized. The 21-year-old Highland Park’s notes of anise and smoke amplified the scallop’s delicate flavor, somehow not interfering with the bright acid notes of lemon yet bringing the woodsy char of the grill to the back of the palate.
Course Four: Soft-service ice cream sundaes
Honestly, who can eat dessert after such a repast? I did try the 25 with some of the ice cream and, like with the Parker House rolls, Highland Park’s malt over fat can do no wrong.
Can I choose the 25 as my house whiskey? I’d sure like to.
At about $50, Highland Park’s 12-year whisky makes a nice addition to a Scotch drinker’s cabinet. At about $1000 per bottle, the 25-year is “a little” out of my budget for my every day cabinet but would make a special addition.