Don't worry, I'm about to tell you: The mapping, shrinking and bridging of the planet, our gradual evolution from a bunch of scattered, necessarily incommunicado fiefdoms to the crystal-clear image of a guy playing paddleball in New Zealand, beamed into your living room right this very minute. It's been about vanished frontiers and voyages of discovery and movable type and the democratization of knowledge and the splendid possibility of heading out the front door and being in New Orleans in time for supper, and in Firenze for espresso and cornetto the following morning.
Food has indeed been a prime mover and shaker in the whole globalization megillah. Columbus wouldn't have sailed the ocean blue, looking in vain for the Orient, if Renaissance Europe hadn't needed spices to cover the taste of its rancid meat. If the Eastern and Western hemispheres had not subsequently interacted, there would be no Swiss chocolate, potato pancakes, Italian bruschetta, or gooseberry fool. And we might be a nation of cricket fanatics today if our previous landlords hadn't slapped a hefty tax on imported tea, of all things. More locally, the guys who really scored off the Gold Rush weren't the couple dozen prospectors who actually struck it rich in the foothills; they were the immigrants from every corner of the globe who dressed, housed, and, most important, fed the inrushing hordes with delicacies from their native kitchens, turning San Francisco into a cosmopolitan culinary mecca in the process.
Back then, a century and a half ago, with Northern California as inaccessible as any place has ever been in the history of human transit, eggs were a buck apiece and oysters, oysters -- let's not even talk about oysters. (Hence the invention of the Hangtown Fry, the request of a nouveau riche prospector in the mood to blow some of his newfound wealth.)
But nowadays, with all the planet-shrinkage wrought by the second millennium, a sole plucked from the English Channel this morning can be on your dinner plate tonight, the Sierras and Cape Horn be damned. And LuLu, one of the finer descendants of our Gold Rush restaurants, can offer a menu brimming with Maine lobster, Gulf shrimp, clams from Massachusetts and oysters from Oregon, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, all of them as fresh and fragrant as a jaunt to the seashore.
In a couple of important areas, however, LuLu is absolutely reminiscent of the second millennium's early years. The setting, a big, barnlike dining hall packed with revelers eating from communal platters, is definitely medieval, only cleaner. (I've heard complaints about the venue's noise level, but the high ceilings satisfied my acoustic sensibilities, and I like the lively feel of the place.) Best of all, though, is LuLu's dedication to open flame -- the huge, fowl-bedecked rotisserie is straight out of Sherwood Forest -- in the form of skillet roasts, grilled meats, and oak-seared fish licked with fire and redolent of woodsmoke. It's the only way to honor the good flavors of impeccably fresh ingredients.
Which is exactly what LuLu does. The restaurant, a creation of Reed Hearon's (Rose Pistola, Cafe Marimba, et al.) now masterminded by chef Jody Denton, takes the ripest, most aromatic fruits and vegetables and the freshest meats and seafood, creates wonderfully rustic-Mediterranean culinary combinations for the flavors to settle against and serves them up with baskets of dense, delicious house-baked breads, a wide array of fine wines, and all manner of mustards, vinegars, and condiments created on the premises. (These, as well as house-made pasta sauces, jams, and seasonings, are available for purchase.) The result is memorable food, improbably light and hearty at once, brimming with vibrant flavors and soul-enriching, stress-smoothing textures.
Post-holiday lassitude would sensibly preclude urban interaction of any sort, yet there we were, sharing big family-style platters of hearty grub and realizing to our shock that abundant food can invigorate rather than enervate, and even constitute an antidote to holiday gluttony, a breath of the sunny Mediterranean in chilly S.F. The mood-setting starter was LuLu's legendary iron skillet-roasted mussels ($10.50), a multisensory experience: first I felt the heat of the dish approaching from behind, then I smelled the mussels' briny, bubbly essence, and finally saw the big heavy pan of midnight-black shells and their pink-orange contents as it was set on a central trivet before us, a tiny cauldron of drawn butter placed in the bivalves' midst. You pick the mussels from the shells with tiny forks, avoiding the latent heat of the shells, slipping the hot-juicy flesh down your gullet and ignoring the superfluous butter. LuLu personified: fresh, imaginative, convivial, and absolutely delicious.
Next came an antipasti platter ($10.95) in which you select three noshes from a choice of six. We went for a surprisingly light salata of supple roasted beets, ricotta, and walnuts; a hearty, winter-defying tart of Swiss chard, pine nuts, currants, and sharp Parmesan -- the Mediterranean in pastry-encased miniature -- and, best of all, sardines cured on the premises with lemon juice, white wine, and spiky little green peppercorns. Our third starter was a large icy platter of oysters, Louisiana prawns, and littleneck clams ($21 small, $29.50 medium, $39.50 large, $110 "Grand Plateaux") served with a subtly garlicky aioli, a bracing champagne mignonette, and an earthy red pepper rouille; the clams, sweet and succulent, would have been worth ordering even alone.
It's Dungeness time, and we continued the seafood theme with a fine example of whole Cancer magister roasted in an oak-fired oven under a crust of chiles and garlic ($22), creating a mildly torrid treat for the taste buds to go with the sounds of cracking shells and slurped claw meat. Another ocean denizen, whole Tai snapper ($19.50), was boned tableside and served with a Niçoise amalgam of tomatoes, olives, capers, and branches of fresh fennel; the lusty vegetables would've made a marvelous meal on their own, but the fish, tender-fleshed and perfectly flaky, was an excellent example of the kitchen's delicate acumen. They know what they're doing inland, too: The wild boar sausage ($12.95), dense and powerful, was served on a complimentary cushion of warm lentils, watercress, and goat cheese; taken together, the ingredients create a whole new ... whole.
The desserts aren't up to the rest of the menu; they're a bit too delicately flavored, and the sorbets ($6.50) -- Jonagold apple, Cox orange pippin apple, and pomegranate on the night of our visit -- were too icy. But the caramel-bourbon vanilla pot de crème ($6.50) had a great texture to it and an almost ethereal butterscotch flavor, while the buttermilk ice cream accompanying the lackluster persimmon pudding ($6.50) was wonderfully bland and soothing.
LuLu's staggering, exhaustive wine list covers every possible culinary need, with several hundred possibilities ranging from $20 to $475 per bottle, and a couple of pages alone dedicated to 2 oz. tastes and 6 oz. glasses. It's possible to order a good bottle without breaking the bank -- there are lots of choices in the $20 to $40 range -- and the markup isn't outrageous. The list's focus is California (and France and Italy), the bar made me a fine Stolichnaya martini, and there are also 17 grappas from Italy, 16 cognacs and seven Armagnacs from France, 18 single malts from Scotland, six sherries from Spain, and 11 bourbons from the U.S.A.
It's been a good millennium, foodwise.