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Dining Among the Gods

[whitespace] the Zodiac Club Sign of the Times: Glitterati gather at the Zodiac Club.

David Fortin

Like a salad fork struck upon a star

By Michael Stabile

The Zodiac Club, at barely four months old, may not yet be established enough to have garnered a Michael Bauer review in the Chronicle, a rating in Zagat's or a visit from Mayor Willie Brown, and its Upper Safeway location may never attract the orthodontic arrivistes of Marin, but it does have one spectacular garnish to its credit: it's the after-party location for the food and beverage glitterati. In order to attract the waiters and maitre d's from Backflip and Mercury, a space must meld hip with haute and fusion with fashion. Zodiac's late dining hours are only part of the reason for its quick if understated success. The food must have something to do with it.

Not surprisingly, the heavily ambianced Zodiac resulted from the creative forces of Peter and Marija Garcia--the innovative couple who first imagined and executed the Red Room at the Commodore Hotel. Soft purple lighting sedates the dining room like an extra milligram of Xanax. Softly glowing star-sign plaques, each representing a sign of the zodiac, hover over the tables, interrupted only by a back-bar starscape. Hanging mesh surrounds a circular banquet table, suggesting celebrity intimacy, as if behind the translucent curtain one might find Leonardo or Kate or Sean Puffy Combs. The overall effect is chic but relaxed.

The atmosphere befits the cuisine, a Mediterranean-Middle Eastern mixture which is comfortable without resorting to the ubiquitously annoying comfort-food trend. No garlic mashed potatoes, no meatloaf--yet no pretense either. Also missing, quite thankfully, are the past-their-prime Pan-Asian, Pan-American, Mexi-Cali-French supermodels of cuisine which have dominated mid- to high-end dining in San Francisco for the past decade. Even before I ordered, I felt giddily awash with the unconventional conventionality.

The starters, despite some epicureally esoteric names, were phenomenal. The borek of duck confit, thin cigars of crisp pastry filled with lightly spiced, mouth-melting duck, had me clamoring for its fig puree accompaniment. A light bed of greens tempered the dish's richness with the skill of a talented backup singer: you'd only notice her if she were absent. The lamb kofte, a juicy and soft Middle Eastern lamb patty (though patty is much too pedestrian a word to describe it) served on skewers, had me wishing that I was dining with Kate Moss. With the exception of a bite for her, I wouldn't have had to share. The only disappointment was the roasted onion with polenta and a mushroom ragout. The headlining vegetable was limpid, weak and lacking flavor. The accompanying ragout, on the other hand, was too strenuously flavored and oversalted. The polenta helped mitigate, but generally seemed lost between the opposing partners.

Entrees were uniformly good, though a slight notch below the appetizers. The "hangar steak," served with crispy steak frites, was served beautifully rare, a preparation akin to seared ahi. The size of the lamb shank was, as our waitress agreed, fit for Fred Flintstone's. The fragrant rounded flavors, which resulted from its slow braising in red wine, cleared the lamb of any gaminess or musky undertones while producing a delicate and flaky cut of meat. Unfortunately, the Spanish rice which accompanied it seemed more a side note to the hearty braising sauce.

A simpler option is the double order of the Pacific paella (single orders are not accommodated) with a bottle of Rioja or Le Cigare Volant (the wine list is short but wise, and almost every dish has one or more quality matches). It arrives in a huge paella pot filled with clams, mussels, lobster, calamari, prawns and a host of other aquatic delights. It may horrify fans of The Little Mermaid, but the prospect thrilled me. Though the rice and stock were quite good, the shellfish seemed to lack a certain freshness, at times almost tasting prefrozen. Still, it's a terribly romantic way to dine. (Tradition dictates that the woman serves the man first and then herself, but if you're feeling liberated--or spoiled--the server will be happy to accommodate.)

With such generous main dishes, it's hard to push for dessert. I had my doubts about the orange flan, but it was a perfect ending to the paella. Light, creamy and with just a hint of citrus, it unified the entire dining experience. Other desserts, such as the banana Napoleon, seemed oddly out of place on the menu. The execution was fine enough, but I found the texture and flavors jarring in relation to the rest of the meal. On each occasion that I dined here, the smart and sassy waitstaff attempted to push the chocolate pudding cake. Finally, I relented. It's hot, filled with rich pudding and incredible. It's also a welcome change from those flourless chocolate cakes that appear on dessert menus with almost as much frequency as crème brûlee.

Zodiac's prices range from $6 to $10 for starters and $13 to $19 for entrees. Anyone whose New Year's resolution involves a budget may want to relax at the bar over an appetizer, tapas style. The bar at the Zodiac is replete with cocktails: classic (Old Fashioned, French 75), glamorous (Bellinis) and inventive (Demeter's Delight--a vodka and pomegranate juice martini), each with a corresponding birth sign. The unity of the theme may be a little much for some patrons, but if you can overlook in-your-face astrology and focus on dinner, you may, too, realize that your late-night fate lies among the stars.

Zodiac Club, 718 14th St.; Fri.-Sat. 6pm-1am, Sun.- Thu. 6pm-midnight; 415/626-7827.

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From the January 18, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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