Ocean to Table

Michael and Matt Juanes of the Plumeria
Michael and Matt Juanes of the Plumeria offload 500 pounds of king salmon from a five day trip at Pier 45 for Water2Table. These are all hatchery salmon noted Michael, “You can tell by the notch on, or lack of adipose fin.” Photo: Bruce Cole

Ancora Closes the Loop Between Commercial Anglers & Diners

Opening a seafood-centric restaurant in the city has been Joe and Andi Conte’s dream for more than a decade. 

Ancora, SF’s newest fine-dining restaurant focusing on local seafood, opened this summer in the heart of the Mission district. The restaurant is helmed by partner Nick Anichini, previously the chef de cuisine at Atelier Crenn. 

While this is the first restaurant for the Contes, the married couple has decades of experience in the restaurant and food industry. Joe was previously Vice President of operations at the Wolfgang Puck Food Company, and Andi was Director of Operations at Chow Restaurant group.

Through their years in the industry, they’ve made many connections with local fishermen as they are also recreational anglers: Joe was born and raised in San Francisco and grew up fishing in the bay and along the coast. “When we weren’t working, we were pretty much fishing every weekend,” Joe says. “I always wondered why all these great fish that we catch up and down the coast aren’t showing up on local menus.”

Ancora chef Nick-Anichini wih Andi and Joe Conte
Executive Chef Nick Anichini with Anocra founders Andi and Joe Conte. Photo: Bruce Cole

How Seafood Ends Up on the Plate

What the Contes saw was a system that didn’t always prize the freshest, local and seasonal fish. Often, seafood ends up on a plate through multiple steps. Local fishermen might sell to receivers, who then sell to wholesalers, then a distributor, who in turn, sells to restaurants. 

The Contes closed this gap by buying directly from local fishermen, and in 2011 the couple started Water2Table Fish Company. “We really wanted to cut that process and connect local fishermen with local chefs,” Andi says. “I’d pay them a couple of extra dollars a pound, and they loved it, and the restaurants loved it,” Joe added. 

Water2Table is one of the home-grown companies, along with Two By Sea, Four Star Seafood, and Seaforager, that delivers freshly caught seafood to restaurants, sometimes caught on the same day. Their current catch list includes black cod, halibut, Marin coast king salmon, Mount Lassen farmed trout, Tomales Bay oysters, and occasionally white seabass.

Most Water2Table clients are chef-driven restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, including State Bird Provisions, Anchovy Bar, Flour + Water, Atelier Crenn, Hook Fish, Delfina—all in the city—and restaurants in Napa, Sonoma and elsewhere in the Bay Area. Part of the reason most restaurants still buy from bigger wholesalers is that local fishing is unpredictable.

“It’s very dynamic,” Joe says, referring to the changes in weather, fishing seasons and quotas regulated by the state. “It requires a chef who will roll with what’s in season, is available, and has a printer in the office” to change the menu. 

 The Pandemic Pivot

During the pandemic, Water2Table had to suddenly pivot to a home delivery service. On Monday, March 16, 2020, after most restaurants in the city shut down due to the pandemic, the Contes woke up to zero orders for their fish inventory. They quickly pulled together an email list of a few hundred friends and family, which eventually grew to a list of 9,000, and began selling seafood directly to consumers. At its peak, they were delivering 250 orders a day to homes in the Bay Area during the pandemic. At the same time, they added prepared foods to their home delivery menu after renting out the kitchen at Good Good Culture Club and the former Locanda space at 557 Valencia. “We realized how beautiful Locanda was and how much potential it has,” Andi says, and they leased the space to open Ancora and partnered with Anchini to run the kitchen.

 A Meal at Ancora

Inside, the restaurant is cozy and posh, tinted with blue hues and some hanging plants. The open kitchen’s highlight is the Santa Maria–style grill, an old-school barbecue that has roots along California’s Central Coast. 

Ancora’s menu doesn’t veer too far from what diners may already be familiar with, featuring king salmon, California halibut, rockfish, black cod and as soon as the season (hopefully) opens next month, Dungeness crab. Because the menu depends on what the local fishermen catch each day and week, Anchini has to stay nimble. “When the season changes the menu will change regularly, dish by dish,” Anchini says. “I’m a fan of evolving and growing, and making my guests excited. We’re really trying to execute the most beautiful dishes.” 

At a recent meal after Ancora’s July 2022 opening (disclosure: this writer was invited to a media preview), Anichini displayed his chops with dishes like the plankton tagliolini, served in a leek fondue with white sturgeon caviar, and a halibut crudo with local Monterey seaweed that featured a Manila clam vinaigrette. Anchini also serves a San Francisco Bay halibut, served frenched like a rack of lamb with bone-in to emphasize the flavor of the fish, and a Mount Lassen Trout is served butterflied whole and grilled directly over the open fire pit for the characteristic Santa Maria charred flavor. 

Fisherman Mike Esquivel hands off his halibut catch to Nate Li
Fisherman Mike Esquivel hands off his halibut catch to Nate Li of Water2Table at Pier 45. Photo: Bruce Cole

Offloading at the Wharf

At 5 a.m. during the middle of the local king salmon commercial season this past month, I ventured to Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf where Water2Table’s crew was waiting for Scott Edson, captain of FV Genesis, to arrive. Edson was fishing off Stinson for three days and brought in about 300 pounds of king salmon, a modest-sized haul. 

The company works with just a dozen local fishermen, skippering boats as small as 18 feet up to larger 30-footers. In addition to procuring better-quality fish, fishing locally means it’s likely more sustainable. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife runs a fairly tight ship and helps to monitor species and to protect endangered ones; black cod for example, is a federally managed groundfish species. Water2Table’s fishermen (and it is mostly men, though Joe says they have worked with women anglers before) fish with hook and line versus trawling, a practice frowned upon because it leads to wasteful bycatch. He notes that local fishermen take crucial steps to care for the fish properly: bleeding them out when landed—a process that preserves flavor and freshness—and chilling the fish properly in ice.

Fishing locally means fishermen have to be nimble and take advantage of the small windows during the year when the commercial fishing season opens. It can vary each year—in 2015, for example, there was no commercial Dungeness crab season, and this year, the salmon season has opened and closed several times during the spring and summer. Joe notes that he’s seen many small commercial fishermen leave the trade. Once they leave, “they never come back,” he said. “They wait all year to make money. It’d be very nice to support these guys.”