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Hot Hits of the 1990s 

42 Degrees

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000
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In all the fuss over the end of the century (century, hell! millennium), the '90s have gone largely unanalyzed. This seems unfair, given the sensational nature of the past 10 years: not just O.J. and Monica but Newt Gingrich and Mark McGwire, Bosnia and the Gulf, CNN, the Internet, and a steady proliferation of cell phones, pagers, and sport-utility vehicles. The economy boomed along, except, of course, among those pesky homeless people, and distracting us from the dichotomy were the requisite bread and circuses -- chocolate martinis to sweeten the tongue, purple basil to dazzle the eye.

Eateries hither and yon served up the best food of my lifetime. Let us now praise famous restaurants, or at least restaurants that I found particularly famous these past 10 years. There was the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and its fantastical cheese board, the tea-smoked salmon with mashed yucca at Eos, Zuni Cafe's roast chicken for two with the big bowl of tangy bread salad on the side, Rose Pistola's house-cured anchovies, Hama-Ko's supple, silky monkfish liver, and Marin Joe's Caesar salad, the best in the Bay Area. What would the '90s have been without the fresh-fruit cocktails at Trader Vic's, the Oysters Bingo at the Buckeye, the icy martinis so lovingly shaken at Bix? Or the hot, garlicky, antennaed prawns at Ton Kiang, the smoked trout with wild greens and horseradish at Fifth Floor, the salad lyonnaise with duck livers and egg yolk at Zax, the skillet-roasted mussels at LuLu, the waffles at Sear's, the crab salad at Swan, the fennel-roasted duck breast at La Villa Poppi, the whole experience of Fleur de Lys?

Actually, the decade in all its boffo glory can be experienced in essence at 42 Degrees, a venue so hip, so SOMA, that it's south of China Basin, never mind Market Street. You hop aboard the 15 and wend your way through Polk Gulch and North Beach into the Financial District, cross Market, pass Yerba Buena Center, traverse the Fourth Street drawbridge, alight, and find yourself in a no man's land of railroad tracks, distant sirens, the suggestion of salt water, and factory outlets. There's one: Esprit, glowing happily in the lunar landscape. Cross the parking lot -- your objective is off to the side and tucked away in the darkness. Pull aside the drapes, open the door, and ... smack in the middle of the postindustrial wasteland, all the Clinton-era culinary suspects are present and accounted for: soaring ceilings; rich draperies; a full bar lined with silk-suited singles sucking down boutique bourbons and iridescent Cosmopolitans; the fragrance of cigar smoke wafting from an adjacent terrace; a hip little trio providing jazzy counterpoint to the chatter and cutlery, every night at 8.

The titular coordinates hint at the menu's proclivities. Forty-two degrees north of the equator (and a half-dozen degrees east and west of Greenwich) one finds the Basque country, Corsica, and central Italy, and, give or take a few degrees, Provence, Calabria, and other culinary hot spots of the Mediterranean Basin. The region's ingredients and cooking styles are represented here in several forms: flatbread with Serrano ham and pecorino cheese ($8); tomato bruschetta with leeks and balsamic vinegar ($5); bacalao fritters with parsley salad ($8.50); medjool dates ($7); an appetizer-sized cassoulet ($8); Iberian blood sausage ($6); Tuscan chickpea soup with pancetta ($7); fennel-blood orange salad with shaved pecorino ($8); osso buco with Sardinian couscous and gremolata ($21); tangerine granita ($5.50); and wines, sherries, and grappas from throughout the area.

There's a chalkboard above the counter where daily snacks and nibbles are listed for your consideration. We opted for the roasted marrow bones ($8), mostly because I remembered M ordering them at his club in some long-ago Ian Fleming escapade. The bones are as rich, unhealthy, and delicious as any 007 thriller, seven of them served with long, elegant croutons emerging vertically from their interiors to counterpoint the marrow's essential creaminess. Honest-to-God marrow spoons and supple, long-roasted garlic cloves add to the whole decadent élan, although we really didn't have to know, courtesy of our waitress, that they were "veal bones -- from the front legs." Chanterelles served with shallots, thyme, and lemon ($9) are another delicious chalkboard item, especially since they're baked in parchment and when the parchment is split open, the fragrant steam that envelopes your table is as good as the earthy food itself.

Another starter, the Dungeness crab salad ($11), surrounds the sweet, highly crackable crustacean with capers, arugula, a marvelously creamy celery-root rémoulade, and a mustard vinaigrette for dipping. And the antipasto platter ($9.50) is rustic inventiveness itself, with a salad of three shades of beet, slow-braised, bittersweet endive, creamy Chenel fromage blanc, a selection of tiny, briny Mediterranean olives, and knobby house-made bread sticks offering a miniature buffet rich in contrasts.

Our entrees weren't quite as dazzling as our starters. The fettuccine alla Calabrese ($19) is a good, hearty platter of pasta, nothing more, although the house-made lamb sausage adds a nice spicy accent. The seared duck breast ($23.50) doesn't quite take advantage of the fowl's rich and smoky potential, and a gloppy side portion of chestnut risotto doesn't help. But the monkfish ($25), wrapped in silky pancetta, grilled and served with a pungent amalgam of green lentils, niçoise olives, and citrusy cipollini onions, is the best thing this side of fresh lobster -- sweet, moist, and absolutely irresistible.

The desserts are as enticing as the appetizers. The chestnut crepes ($6.50), served in a stack with crunchy sautéed pears and a dollop of nectareous caramel ice cream, are wonderful comfort food. The semolina-yogurt cake ($6.50), while slightly dry, has a nice cornmeal taste to it reminiscent of a sweet polenta, with tangy blood orange sections and a champagne-enriched sabayon moistening the edges. And the semifreddo ($6.50), a big glorious ball of chilled bittersweet chocolate, orange, and pistachios, is the fudgiest, soul-blissingest dessert of -- well -- the 21st century.

May there be many more like it.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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