Overfishing has devastated our oceans and waterways. It’s decimated populations of Atlantic halibut and bluefin tuna, weakened coral reefs, and made what was once the most biodiverse place on the planet a whole lot less so.
It’s destroyed the livelihoods of small, independent fishing operations, and replaced them with large, fuel-spewing fleets that catch endangered species as indifferently as they do edible ones in their trawling nets.
Overfishing isn’t just removing species from the ocean faster than they can reproduce and replenish their populations, it’s setting the stage for the total collapse of marine ecosystems across the globe.
But it doesn’t have to. When fished sustainably, seafood is the world’s most environmentally efficient source of protein, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ancora, the Mission’s new sustainable seafood spot, wants to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Inside the new Mission seafood restaurant, Ancora.(Joseph Weaver)
The restaurant, still under-the-radar in its heavily trafficked corridor of Valencia Street between 16th and 17th, is quiet when my appetite and I show up shortly after it’s opened its doors on a Tuesday evening. The former Locanda space is accented with the geometry of clean white tile and dark wood. On its southern wall, an expansive mural of swirling red and orange fish is lit by an elaborate light fixture that’s all transparent bulbs and metal arms.
Ancora is a collaboration between chef Nick Anichini, formerly of Atelier Crenn, and Joe and Andi Conte of Water2Table Fish Company. After 25 years watching San Francisco restaurants turn not to local fishermen for their fish and seafood but to larger, less responsible fishing fleets, the latter set out to build a bridge between them. Water2Table began trading in five local fish species in 2011. Today they work primarily with fisheries from Monterey to Fort Bragg to bring more than a dozen types of swimmers and scuttlers to restaurants and home cooks.
It’s around those sustainable catches that Ancora’s menu revolves. In the late summer season, that includes white sea bass swimming north into Monterey and Half Moon bays, anchovies schooling in the San Francisco Bay, and trout migrating through mountain lakes and streams around Mt. Lassen. The halibut crudo may have come from as close as SF’s own Ocean Beach.
Ancora's executive chef, Nick Anichini.(Joseph Weaver)
I select my meal from a range of a la carte dishes to create a lighter version of the nine-course $125 prix fixe menu they offer nightly. Gougeres, flaky biscuits filled with smoky salmon, horseradish, and dill, and a new dish they’re trying out, jewel-toned new potatoes bathed in herbaceous, creamy green goddess espuma, are my starting point. Grilled Washington oysters (sometimes Water2Table works with responsible fisherfolk beyond the Northern California coast) bubbling with harissa butter and breadcrumbs follow.
“The plankton tagliolini is the rockstar of the menu,” my gracious server tells me, so that too has a place at my table. The hand-pulled pasta in rich, citrusy leek fondue dotted with tiny black white sturgeon caviar tastes so strongly of the ocean, it could have been plucked just minutes ago from the waves. Although it’s too fishy for my dining companion, I savor its complexity.
It’s not just the flesh of fish and bivalves that Anichini highlights at Ancora. His dishes incorporate the briney bounty of the sea in unexpected ways. He distills Manila clams into vinaigrette, mussels into liqueur, and sea urchins into butter. He heaps caviar onto pasta and trout roe onto fried artichokes. He whips salmon into mousse and rolls ground seafood and pork into sausage.
Ancora's gougeres with smoked salmon mousse.(Joseph Weaver)
The meal’s showstopper comes in the form of the halibut rack caught in SF Bay. The fish itself is a work of art, topped with a clove of roasted garlic and herbs, and crowned with delicate bone. Next to the centerpiece they lay out dishes of tender roasted peppers, piquant chimichurri, olive oil–baked mushrooms, seafood sausage, and a loaf of rustic housemade bread dripping with cultured butter and garlic. A light touch with the fish highlights its meaty texture and natural flavor, and I can’t get enough of the bread still warm from the grill.
I end my meal with a dessert of plums and peaches layered with a crispy cookie so subtly sweet it's almost savory, and am pleased to see that Ancora is one of several restaurants stepping up to assure that those in the kitchen are making the same living wage as those serving the food by automatically adding a 20 percent gratuity to the check that’s shared among them all.
Sustainable food, after all, isn’t just about what we eat, it’s about how we eat it.
// 557 Valencia St. (Mission), ancorasf.com