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The Big 4 

Robber Barons

Wednesday, Jul 4 2001
By its narrowest definition Independence Day celebrates our decolonization from the British Empire, but in a broader, happier sense the Fourth of July is nothing less than one big national birthday party. At a birthday party we contemplate the guest of honor, and when the honoree is 225 years old and 3,000 miles wide, there's a lot to contemplate -- both good and bad. Although the good can't displace the bad, the U.S. has enriched the world in enough different ways to be well worth celebrating. So on this day let us praise John Muir, Willie Mays, seven-card stud, Orson Welles, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jonas Salk, the Chrysler Building, Miles Davis, Calvin & Hobbes, Edith Wharton, Cesar Chavez, Rodgers & Hart, Dr. Seuss, the city of Chicago, H.L. Mencken, Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics, and of course chowder, hush puppies, cheesecake, martinis, jambalaya, cioppino, Key lime pie, and barbecued ribs.

In its own way the Big 4 restaurant pays tribute to the rambunctious spirit shared by these disparate icons. Its predominant motif is the greatest technical achievement of the 19th century: the first transcontinental railroad across the United States. Several strands of the American story are exemplified in this colossal enterprise: technological bravura (the crossing of the High Sierra), corporate greed (the Southern Pacific wasn't called the Octopus for nothin'), high hopes (new prosperity for perpetually isolated San Francisco?), and dashed dreams (depression and race riots instead). After its completion in 1869 you could make the trip from New York to San Francisco in 10 days -- a voyage that previously had taken six months. In the words of a typically chauvinistic local rag, San Francisco had "annexed the Union."

The four Sacramento merchants behind the Central (later Southern) Pacific Railroad are the robber barons after whom the Big 4 is named. Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis P. Huntington scaled the heights of Nob Hill itself and built gaudy mansions where the Stanford Court, the Mark Hopkins Hotel, Grace Cathedral, and Huntington Park currently reside. The Big 4 is appropriately located just off the lobby of the Huntington Hotel, on the crest of the hill near Huntington Park. Inside and out it's as luxurious as its Gilded Age subject matter.

When you walk in you're greeted by the delicate tones of a grand piano and the hush-hush of an ice-filled cocktail shaker in action. Climb the half-dozen thickly carpeted steps past the life-size paintings of Stanford and Hopkins to the subtly illuminated lounge with its six barstools and circular glass tabletops etched with the names of the four men. Settle into a green leather banquette, enjoy an impeccable, icy, vermouth-scented martini, and take a look around: at the crackling fireplace, the ram's-horn light fixtures, and the richly carved dark-wood paneling covered with maps, photographs, documents, etchings, and advertising posters relating to the Iron Horse and its legacy. Near the restrooms there's a sweeping 270-degree photo of 19th-century San Francisco, a color-coded map of Chinatown and its "opium resorts" and "joss houses," and a case filled with antique shot glasses, cigar boxes, card cases, and other artifacts. Oiled wood and beveled glass provide decorative accents, and despite the wealthy surroundings the ambience is warm, welcoming, and comfortable.

You can have a bite to eat in the lounge area, but take dinner in the warren of starched-napery dining rooms beyond. The menu bears more than a few modern touches, but also hearkens back to the days when a man's well-being was judged by his girth. The food isn't dense or heavy, but it's rich with top-flight ingredients -- Parma prosciutto, Scottish smoked salmon, and Spanish anchovies -- infiltrating such domestic delights as Caesar salad, crab cakes, filet mignon, pecan pie, and bread and butter pudding. What we have here, in other words, is robust American food in plentiful portions with enough modern grace notes to make dining positively 21st century.

Take the crab cake, usually a leaden mixture of bread crumbs, grease, and the occasional hint of seafood. The Big 4's version puts the crab at center stage, combining thick shreds of our own sweet Dungeness with the barest minimum of salt and filler. Served with a creamy, caper-enhanced vinaigrette, crisply fried artichoke, and a sweet-corn salsa, it's American cooking at its most inclusive. The smoked salmon starter employs the richest lox on Earth, the supple Scottish variety, and serves it up with piquant caperberries, crème fraîche, and a decidedly American companion: a cushiony, scallion-studded cornmeal pancake. Another American classic, Caesar salad, strays from the tediously healthy by only a single Spanish white anchovy, but the onion soup, served in a crock with plenty of pungent Gruyère, is dark, rich, and sweet with the flavor of long-simmered onion.

What would an American meal be without a nice, thick steak? The Big 4's filet mignon isn't as ethereally tender as the equally pricey gold standard served at Ruth's Chris and Harris', but its smooth, succulent flavor puts it several steps ahead of the usual restaurant fare. Al dente morels, baby carrots, and asparagus spears and a fontina-infused wedge of bread pudding make ideal accompaniments. A more elaborate bread pudding dominates one of the restaurant's two vegetarian entrees: Somewhere between a soufflé and a frittata and fragrant with four savory cheeses, it's moist, custardy, and absolutely satisfying, especially with its bed of lightly steamed spring vegetables and a fan of crisp manchego cheese sprouting from its crown. The Alaskan halibut is a surprisingly light-textured fillet served on a bed of pungent fava beans with sentinels of roasted red and gold beets guarding its perimeter and a spring-onion sauce drizzled here and there. The menu's finest entree, though, is the ostrich steak. Deep red in appearance and firm in texture, it's served in six thick slices with smoky morels, a peppery port glaze, and a soufflélike corn cake. Its robust flavor is closer to well-aged beef than any feathered creature I've tasted.

The best dessert is also the most American: a coconut-pecan tart in which a plentiful array of the scrumptious nutmeats comes packed into a buttery shortbread crust, with a thick dollop of bourbon-edged ice cream melting alongside. The fudgy, dense chocolate tart is nearly as tasty, studded as it is with sweet macadamias and served in a crust of crunchy macadamia brittle. But the tarte Tatin is overly soft and doughy, and the house-made sorbets -- raspberry, lemon, mango, and green apple -- feel refreshing but taste watery and insubstantial. Prices at the Big 4 are as lofty as the setting, and although the food is well prepared it isn't as mind-blowing as the stuff served up at Jardinière, the Fifth Floor, or other fiscally comparable establishments. Nevertheless, dinner here is pleasantly leisurely, with each course succeeding another at a lazy, unhurried pace and your waiter exemplifying the venue's friendly attitude with a performance at once witty, well-informed, and smoothly professional. The traditional wine list is thorough and expensive, with 10 vintages available by the glass; the 1998 Iron Horse pinot noir is mellow, fruity, and excellent with the seared ostrich. After coffee and a shot of good American bourbon it's nice to stroll out into the rarefied Nob Hill evening, greet the doormen with democratic grace, gaze eastward across our moatlike bay, and contemplate that multifaceted Union we annexed so long ago.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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