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Zodiac Arrest 

Wednesday, Jan 27 1999
The Zodiac Club is a fine place to be if you're not looking to eat. It has lavish otherworldly decor -- designed by the team behind Backflip and the Red Room -- loud beat-driven music, tasty cocktails both specialty and traditional, and personable, charismatic staff. Oh, and a theme, that sine qua non of a truly fun night on the town. The clientele is a pleasing mixture of neighborhood folk and imports, mostly pretty young and fun-loving. The intimacy of the space precludes truly stellar people-watching, but it's an entertaining place to be, even if you're alone.

The light in the Zodiac Club is purple, except for that from the round wall-mounted lamps, each of which bears a zodiacal sign. The signs are reiterated on the tiny painted tabletops and again in the names of the dozen house concept cocktails. In case you haven't guessed, the theme of the Zodiac Club is: the zodiac. The walls are festooned with gold and purple velvet, and even the bathroom is full of stars.

Foodwise, however, um, it needs a little work.
The menu is sort of Pan-Mediterranean, with Middle Eastern influences. Meals start with a small amount of complimentary flatbread and an infused-looking but bland olive oil in which to dip it. If you run out of bread before the meal comes -- the kitchen can be slow, especially on crowded nights -- you can get more for a dollar.

Appetizers include a twice-cooked eggplant salad ($6), which consists of plain lettuce and nice raw tomato, with a few rolled-up strips of eggplant. The whole thing is crunchy with coarse salt -- in fact, it's tremendously salty -- and the eggplant, flavored with olive oil and lemon, is curiously resilient, almost like calamari, and briny. It's lucky they have drinks here.

The "borek of duck confit" ($6) is little multilayered tubes of phyllo wrapped around confit, with a dark fruity fig sauce. It's very heavy on duck fat and butter, and tastes strongly of ginger, with little complexity -- giving an impression more of cheap, greasy Chinese food than of the elaborate Turkish-French fusion it strives to be. A whole roasted onion ($8) arrives in a ragout that should be more intensely flavored. It's winy and beefy, but somehow sour and thin. (Probably a little more fat would have brought out a lot more flavor.) The onion itself is tasty and tender, and bready chunks of polenta in the ragout make the dish reminiscent of an onion soup gratinee. All of the appetizers are difficult to finish, which unfortunately is due only in part to their generous sizes.

The entrees at the Zodiac Club, as is often the case, are generally more complexly flavored and tastier than the appetizers. They're not great, though. The steak frites ($15) comes in a peppery brandy sauce, with whole peppercorns. The frites are long and slender and have a good crunch, and there's a healthy pile of them, though they seem to have been out of the fryer for quite a while. The meat is a hanger steak, which is a difficult cut to use; hanger steak is often aged to tenderize it. At the Zodiac Club it's not, and the result is an unfortunately tough and somewhat skunky-flavored piece of meat. The best part of this dish is a tomato that's been cooked to the point of disintegration: It's got a concentrated, vinegary taste, and would make an excellent appetizer or side on its own.

Half a roast chicken ($15) is tasty and moist, unexceptionable but unexceptional, with a side of garlic mashed potatoes so nearly literally floating in butter that they can't help but be delicious, though they're somewhat grainy in texture. This dish isn't a bad choice but better chicken can be had elsewhere.

Pumpkin risotto ($15) turns out to be slightly bitter and al dente, spilling out of a miniature pumpkin whose cap has been replaced with a balsamic-marinated portobello mushroom. The risotto is starchy and filling but not creamy or rich, and tastes strongly of black pepper, while the pumpkin is edible but almost flavorless. It's accompanied by what seems to be broccoli rabe that has been steamed and then gently charred, and possibly flavored with wasabi, though that might just be the tang of the burnt flowerets. The dish also comes with a dab of fruity balsamic reduction, which would complement the risotto nicely if there were more of it. (The pumpkin risotto is complemented excellently by the "Virgo," a heady cocktail of vodka and pomegranate puree [$6.50].)

Dessert (all desserts are $5) is without question the best course at Zodiac. Caramelized orange flan is just about perfect: rich, smooth custard with orange sauce and orange-flavored caramel on top, accompanied by slivers of fresh orange. It is completely satisfying. The banana napoleon is rich and flavorful, consisting of alternating layers of pastry cream and hard nutty wafers, with ripe bananas interspersed, and a nicely gooey chocolate sauce. Other desserts worth investigation include zeppoli flambe and pear tarte Tatin with cider ice cream.

The house cocktails range from standard (gimlets, martinis) to outlandish (the Taurus is vodka and Red Bull; the Libra is brandy, Chambord, and champagne). The stinger and the Virgo, treading a narrow middle ground, are delicious. The consistent spelling of "Smir noff" (the house vodka) as two words on the menu lends the restaurant a bit of exotic flair.

The drinks are good, and it's a nice new place to hang out, but the Zodiac Club has substantial room for improvement in the food department. The restaurant has a lot of potential, and the chef has clever ideas. Let's hope it will all come together soon.

The Zodiac Club
718 14th St. (at Church), 626-7827. Open daily from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Reservations recommended. Parking: street unlikely; Safeway lot is just across the street but that's risky; garage at 15th and Sanchez. Muni: 22, 37, F, J, K, L, M, and

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Paul Adams


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