Bistro on a budget at Alamo Square Seafood Grill 

click to enlarge Nice fish: Pleasantly seasoned blackened trout fillet provides the basis for an excellent value, and extensive, bistro meal at  Alamo Square Seafood Grill. - BETH LABERGE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Nice fish: Pleasantly seasoned blackened trout fillet provides the basis for an excellent value, and extensive, bistro meal at Alamo Square Seafood Grill.

There are few reasons less elegant than low prices (clean bathrooms? validated parking?) to suggest a French bistro for dinner. But if it wasn’t evident before, let me out myself: I’m a thrifty diner.

In my non-reviewer life – it exists – I consume a lot of tacos, tortas and pho. And while I certainly have some upscale favorites, a splurge usually requires a special occasion.

But where to go for a spontaneous, mid-week dinner date? Kim Son rates low on the romance spectrum, while Boulevard isn’t a “just because” type of meal. When the gap between high and low-end dining keeps widening, where can I find that comfortable middle ground?

The neighborhood bistro Alamo Square Seafood Grill has all the trappings of a date destination. It’s low-lit, cozy and cute, tucked away on a leafy residential stretch of Fillmore. But the menu is oceanic French fare, not typically a bargain.

That’s why I did a cartoonish double-take when I stumbled on its prix fixe menu for $14.50 — an amount you could spend on a sandwich and beverage at The City’s swanker delis.

What do you get for the price? Soup or salad, an entrée, two sides, and dessert. It’s a bistro extra-value meal!
OK, settle down everybody (or me, specifically), the food’s quality should have some bearing on your opinion.

Let’s review.

The prix fixe is chef’s choice, and it switches each night. I started with a deep bowl of cauliflower soup. This was followed by a blackened trout fillet, served in a green peppercorn-red wine reduction.

The creamy soup could have used some salt from the trout’s black crust, but overall the filet was cooked and seasoned well. Plated with a toss of mixed veggies and a mound of seasoned rice, it was a wholly respectable main course.

The dessert was île flottante, a chocolate-drizzled meringue puff in a pool of liquid custard. It had the springiness and hyper-sweetness of an Easter Peep, not something I’d order on purpose. But: 14 bucks!

For comparison, neighborhood bistro Chez Papa in Potrero has a three-course prix fixe for $35. You get more choice in your courses, but the overall quality is no better. (Recent visits were marred by cold frites, rank mussels, and overcooked fish).

Alamo Square’s regular menu offered still more low-cost surprises. A big bowl of ocean-fresh mussels in chorizo-tomato broth, served with an excellent cone of fries, was less than 10 bucks. Tender, garlicky escargot only ran $7.

The aptly prepared bouillabaisse and a sauteed scallop special were also fairly priced. Even the menu’s big-ticket item, a juicy rib-eye in truffle butter, clocked in under $20.

I’m starting to feel like a green-visored bureaucrat here, overly beholden to penny pinching. Because truthfully, there are better classic bistros in town (see: Café Claude).

Alamo Square Seafood Grill probably won’t serve your favorite version of anything, and the service was warm but spotty. I could’ve done without the Euro beats, and some tables were queerly situated and uncomfortable.

But this place has soldiered on since 1998, weathering economic downturns and the whims of a fickle dining populace. And that’s largely because of owner Andre Larzul’s unswerving commitment to low pricing.

With rapidly inflating ingredient costs, I honestly don’t know how he pulls it off. But when it’s so painless to say “Check, please,” better to stop asking questions.

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Jesse Hirsch

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Sunday, Sep 14, 2014

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