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When a service station is torn down to make way for an art gallery, we cheer. When the art gallery folds and is succeeded by a restaurant, we shuffle our feet uneasily. At least they won't be tearing the building down to bring back the service station but art galleries are harder to find than restaurants.
Pacific Catch is a pretty good seafood restaurant in a neighborhood already chockablock with restaurants. The prices are moderate, the service is friendly and efficient, the food is good, and the look is handsome in a not-overbearing way. But those who remember that the space was home for several years to the Canvas Gallery a blend of art forum, café, restaurant, and meetinghouse, with a general university-town flavor won't recognize much when they step inside. The interior floor plan has been heavily reworked: the central coffee and pastry bar, once surrounded by naves hung with paintings and photographs, has been replaced by tables, chairs, and booths. There is also now (at the far side of the restaurant as you enter) a shiny and bustling exhibition kitchen, along with a bold color scheme of red and blue, and light fixtures that look like clusters of bottomless Bombay Sapphire gin bottles. All that remains of the original layout is a smaller dining room along the building's north face, looking across the busy street at Golden Gate Park.
Still, there is a nice irony in the transformation of a filling station or indeed any other urban eyesore into a haven of civilization, whether it's a locus for art or food, and to have a seafood restaurant on a site that once reeked of gasoline fumes must be accounted an improvement by any standard. I only wish Pacific Catch weren't a nascent chain; there's a tiny sibling outlet on Chestnut in the Marina, another (of unknown scale) in Corte Madera, and a general sense, as a friend of mine put it, that still more Pacific Catches can't be far off.
The food is accordingly mainstream, with tweaks and tunings that reflect sensibilities on either side of the Pacific, trending sometimes in an Asian direction and at others in a Latin American one. Among the great Mexican seafood dishes must be the fish taco, and Pacific Catch offers several versions ($4.25), all creditable on their beds of shredded cabbage: Baja, with chunks of batter-fried halibut or cod; grilled mahimahi, slathered in the restaurant's ubiquitous avocado-tomatillo salsa; and barbecue shrimp, enlivened by little flares of fresh ginger (a nod across the Pacific there). Side dishes enhance the south-of-the-border aura; black beans ($2.95 for a sizable crock) are well seasoned and sprinkled with crumblings of queso fresco, while grilled corn ($2.95) still on disks of cob is suitable for dipping into accompanying pats of chipotle butter.
If Pacific Catch can seem like a cantina in Cabo San Lucas, it can also present itself as a sushi bar on Maui. A variety of sashimi is offered (as is its New World cousin, seviche), along with a selection of sushi rolls and for that Hawaiian touch poke ($8.50), cubes of lightly seared ahi drizzled with soy sauce and served atop a Fritos-like mélange of rice chips. The poke is temperamentally well suited to share table space with wakame (seaweed) salad ($3.95), a staple of sushi bars and notable here for its considerable size. The salad is plenty for two and could even satisfy four if other treats were on the way.
The grilled salmon ($19.95) a deftly grilled filet had been organically farmed in British Columbia, which relieved some of my unease at having it, since farmed salmon is usually a big no-no. The so-called California presentation itself was pleasant if unremarkable and consisted of a huge scoop of brown rice, several stalks of steamed asparagus (with basil aioli for dipping), and under the fish, a confit of tomatoes and lemon.
Even if Pacific Catch is mostly a seafood restaurant, you don't have to have seafood. You could have grilled skirt steak ($18.95), glazed with miso, cut into tender slices, and plated with a huge scoop of white rice, a salad of picked cucumber threads, and a pile of deceptively pale kimchi that packed a real and thrilling wallop of garlic and chili pepper. My only complaint about these large plates is that they did look like subcompacts coming off an assembly line: this one got an extra cup holder from the parts bin, that one a CD deck in the dashboard but otherwise they heavily resembled one another in a bolted-together way.
Dessert tends to soothe complainants of most stripes, luckily, and Pacific Catch has at least one quite good dessert: a sundae ($6.50) built on a macadamia-nut brownie. The brownie isn't a doodle or add-on here, an extra calorie payment stuffed into a sundae glass with gobs of ice cream, as is so often the case with brownie sundaes; instead, it's like Huck's raft, sprawling and commodious, and the blob of macadamia-nut ice cream on top is almost a condiment. Other condiments include twin oozings of hot-fudge and caramel sauces.
There's one element of the mix that hasn't changed much in the metamorphosis, and that's the crowd. It remains young and collegiate- or postcollegiate-looking, although the noise level has risen noticeably. In the old art-café days, people tended to keep even their more intense conversations at murmur level; now, without the elevating presence of art beyond some paintings of fish on the walls, there is a tendency to hoot and bray, if you catch my drift.
Sun.Thurs., 11 a.m.10 p.m.;
Fri.Sat., 11 a.m.11 p.m.
1200 Ninth Ave., SF