For as long as I can remember, there has been a wooden boat floating along the east side of 101 in San Rafael. Hoisted on its piles in 1961, this one time whaling boat is now an historical landmark. Formerly alerting passers-by to Dominic’s Restaurant, it is now the beacon to the Seafood Peddler. My mother has been raving about the lobster there for a couple of years, yet I never thought to review it. When esteemed Ark Editor Barbara Gnoss reported a fun evening there, I quickly made reservations, and we were off.
Some food is very good. Some food is awful. The service is warm and attentive, although not professionally trained. The atmosphere is eclectic…. bright and airy, with an open ceiling and visible air ducts.
As a family restaurant, Seafood Peddler fits the bill. There are enough distractions to keep children engaged: the open deck with a small dock, the fish counter, and the lobster tank. A children’s menu is also available with pizza and the usual fried chicken strips and fish. For adults, there is live but unobtrusive music in the bar, intimate booths where conversations can be held, and some dishes that are quite good.
A basket of warm bread was brought seconds after we sat down. Baguette and a flat bread were quickly gobbled up. The accompanying butter however went unused, due to the fact that the individually wrapped, salted pats were rock hard.
Appetizers came quickly after they are ordered, just after the cocktails were served. Fried Calamari ($7.99) started us out, and it was very good. The accompanying fra diavolo sauce was a perfectly combined mixture of dense tomato sauce and chili pepper. The generous portion of squid had a crispy, flavorful and greaseless coating, and was expertly deep-fried.
There is an abundance of choices from both the West Coast and East Coast Oyster Bars. We made the mistake of ordering the Mixed Cocktail ($17.99). We received three very large oysters, four poached jumbo prawns, and a scoop of watery, tasteless Dungeness crab meat sitting in a radicchio leaf. The accompanying sauces were tasty—the mignonette, a nice light vinegar and shallot combination, was my favorite. Unfortunately, the crab was so disgraceful, it detracted from our enjoyment of the oysters, which were in fact briny and fresh, and the prawns.
We fared much better with a Seared Ahi Tuna appetizer ($9.99) Top grade Ahi is crusted with black and white sesame seeds, then seared enough to toast the spices, then sliced to reveal a glistening, succulent ruby interior. The eight slices are perched atop a raft of alternating mango and avocado slices and dappled with a sesame studded vinaigrette.
The Lobster Bisque ($4.79 for a cup) on the other hand, was inedible. It had the taste of canned Cream of Mushroom soup with a little tomato paste thrown in for color. Tiny bits of the purported lobster were at the bottom of the dish, but they had no flavor, only the texture and shape of tiny rubber bands.
The Iceberg Lettuce Wedge ($5.79) was passable, but certainly could be skipped. A large chunk of wet but crunchy lettuce is doused with a bland blue cheese dressing. The menu touts Gorgonzola, but I’ve never before tasted such a dull Italian cheese. The chopped tomatoes and red onions went uneaten.
My son Gideon, the meat eater (the only one besides me in our family of five), and I shared the Surf and Turf ($29.99), and we were thrilled! The filet mignon was tender, flavorful, large, and perfectly cooked (rare, as per our request). Three grilled Canadian lobster tails surfed alongside their pasture-raised companion. They were also quite tasty, also very tender, with a bit of smoky flavor from the grill. Gideon substituted French Fries for the potatoes au gratin, and they too, were delicious—matchstick sized potato slices, perfectly fried were hot, crispy, creamy, and salty, all at once.
We erred in ordering the Seafood Risotto ($17.99). How disappointed I was, as I was expecting creamy flavorful Arborio rice, studded with tender bits of seafood, and I received a bowl full of mushy, soupy rice, with a fishy pink sauce. The advertised prawns, clams, and calamari were definitely present, although they were flavorless and overcooked.
The wine list is comprehensive, with tried and true, familiar wines by the bottle and by the glass. We chose the Sterling Merlot ($7.50 glass) for the Filet Mignon, a fairly fruity Murphy Goode Fume Blanc ($7.25) and the always-reliable Kendall Jackson Chardonnay ($8.25). They were all reasonable selections, although it would have been nice to try something new, or to have had some input from the waitstaff.
The Cheese Pizza from the children’s menu ($5.99) was pretty good. The wood-fired oven produces a crust that is thin, slightly chewy, and crispy around the edges. The mozzarella cheese and benign tomato sauce were mild and inoffensive. The kids were happy, and found that Shirley Temples ($1.95) harmonize with pizza.
Desserts were quite good, all plated with artistic presentations. The Banana Tart ($6.79) was fabulous. A warm, round shortbread crust is layered with caramelized banana slices, and drizzled with vanilla malted ice cream, and garnished with buttery peanut brittle. The flavors were clean, yet melded beautifully. I also found the Apple Crisp ($6.79) quite delicious. Served warm, tart Granny Smith apples are baked with a cinnamon-accented oatmeal topping, and then complemented with a light crème anglaise and a small scoop of caramel ice cream.
Chocolate Tower ($6.99) was the children’s favorite. Rich, dense, gooey chocolate cake is paired with a somewhat bland hazelnut gelato and decorated with giant pieces of very sweet milk chocolate and covered with thick chocolate sauce.
Overall, our experience was pleasant, yet uninspiring, however the desserts are creative and beautifully presented. My opinion is that by sticking with the simpler preparations (grilling and deep frying) of the fresh seafood and aged beef, the outcome is more predictable.
Seafood Peddler Restaurant & Fresh Fish Market
100 Yacht Club Drive, San Rafael
Hours: Open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily. Reservations and major credit cards accepted.
From The Ark Newspaper