I've always been neutral on the subject of face-lifts. While I'm all for growing old gracefully, I don't take issue with a tuck here or a plump there. Who am I to judge?
My position extends to restaurants. For many more years than was necessary, Skates on the Bay, a veritable institution for gathering on the Berkeley Marina, floated on the San Francisco Bay like a haggard and lost queen at sea. She sagged more than Joan Rivers without the surgeries.
When I heard that Skates was going under the knife, I considered it big news. The place had so much potential and what I imagined to be a solid relationship with the best of the Bay Area's seafood purveyors, I couldn't wait to see what they came up with.
On a recent Sunday, three months after the bandages came off, I rolled in with my husband and son for an early dinner. Upon entry, there was a long, dramatic raw bar made of shiny quartz stone. Soft earth tones wrapped themselves into the dining room's Pottery Barn-like, gray-blue upholstery. Overhead, Edison bulbs dangled from rope-and-metal chandeliers. The only thing that hadn't changed was that stunning, unmatched view of the sea.
I expected a tan Ralph Lauren or one of his nautically dressed models to float by on a sailboat.
But the aroma of fresh-baked bread broke my reverie. Dish after dish by executive chef Adam Brown, formerly of Beets Hospitality Group in Livermore, won me over with subtle yummies, surprising textures
The restaurant has been open since 1984, so I imagine old regulars were pleased to see prime rib (8-16 ounces, $28.95-$38.95) retain its glory on the menu. Brown slow-cooks the roast under a mountain of rock salt, rubs it with fresh garlic and herbs, and chars it under high heat for an ideal crust. The 12-ounce roast, which was served with truffle oil-spiked mashed potatoes and asparagus on our visit, could easily feed two.
Same with the Cioppino ($31.95), generous mounds of mussels, clams, crab and shrimp served in a cast iron pot. I couldn't decide what I liked better: the tangy tomato broth, the fact that the dish was served piping hot, or that for the first time in my life I uttered the words "There's still more crab, babe." When we order cioppino in a San Francisco restaurant, we usually leave hungry because it's never enough.
For me, the culinary stars of the evening were two offerings from the raw bar. The Hamachi Sashimi ($12.95), paper-thin slices of yellow tail flecked with lime, cilantro, jalapeño and smoked sea salt, got the texture-of-the-year award with the addition of hamachi cracklings, which Brown makes by frying the fish skin at a low temperature until it is just the right measure of crispy. I love stuff like that.
I also like knowing that a steak 'n' seafood house, where vegetables are typically ordered as a separate dish, is not going to shame my spinach or cauliflower by serving it steamed and bland. Brown roasts the latter (Roasted Cauliflower, $6.95) until it arrives gloriously orange and bursting with chile flake spice.
There was only one bad thing about our dining experience. The staff was so busy they forgot about our soup and the glass of malbec we were hoping to enjoy with the prime rib. But our server, beyond apologetic, brought both as soon as we mentioned it. And all was forgiven.
Face-lifts are major surgery, after all. They're still recovering.
skates on the bay
* * * ½
FOOD: * * *
AMBIENCE: " * * * *
SERVICE: * * *
WHERE: 100 Seawall Drive, Berkeley
CONTACT: 510-549-1900, www.skatesonthebay.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; until 11:30 p.m. Fridays; 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturdays; until 10:30 p.m. Sundays
VEGETARIAN: Just soup and salad
BEVERAGES: Full bar with a dozen-plus specialty cocktails, red and white wines by the glass and an impressive list of beer on draft and by the bottle.
NOISE LEVEL: Loud
PARKING: Lot parking
KIDS: Fish and chips, pasta, cheeseburger
PLUSES: Reliable classics, inventive new eats and gorgeous bay views.
MINUSES: Noise level gets high at peak hours.
DATE OPENED: Nov. 1984. Remodel completed May 2012.
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