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Happy B-Day to Me 

Wednesday, Feb 23 2000
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I've never much been one for celebrating birthdays, particularly those that are my own. It's not like I have anything against such occasions -- I mean, when someone tells me it's his or her birthday I reply, "Happy birthday!" -- but when my day arrives I always shrink, perhaps out of modesty, or perhaps embarrassment, or maybe a vestige of my stern, French Calvinist roots. I rarely tell anyone about my birthday, and when a friend somehow discovers my dark secret and insists on celebrating, I merely accept the situation stoically: Like traffic accidents, depression, and the wrath of God, birthdays happen, I am powerless to prevent them, and as such must suffer patiently until they are over and then ask passers-by to move along.

Or at least that's how things used to be, because when my birthday rolled around this year I said, "Fuck it, life is just too short not to acknowledge that I, too, was born." On a day! Of course, I had a lot of lost time to make up for, and the celebration quickly grew into what might best be described as a birthweek. It began on Sunday with Italian; on Monday, I made my special, lemon-lime-cilantro-udon-celery soup (which tastes even better than it sounds). On Tuesday, my real birthday, I dined streetside at Enrico's; on Wednesday, at a little French bistro. And with an evening at the incomparable Forbes Island planned for Friday, Thursday yielded another treat: dinner at Kelly's Mission Rock.

Set at the water's edge in China Basin, Kelly's Mission Rock is the kind of place where every day feels like your birthday: The bay looms calm and glassy, parking stretches for miles, and the view of a nearby shipyard is set against the glittering panorama of the East Bay. A towering, corrugated steel shell holds a cavernous dining hall in which hardwood floors and exposed piping add a sort of unfinished elegance. It is a revelry-friendly destination in which a spilled drink is no tragedy, a boisterous outburst a forgivable faux pas.

Since this was a special night, I needed a special date, and could think of no one more qualified to help celebrate my birth than my dear friend Michelle. For example, I appreciate symmetry, which I believe produces peace of mind, and was quite touched that the pink-and-gold paper with which she'd wrapped my present matched her dress almost perfectly. And when that gift was the one thing I need to finish my someday-to-be-completed novel (a really big ashtray), I just melted, and decided life was grand. To commemorate the moment, we ordered a bottle of Laurent Perrier champagne ($45), a crisp, graceful, whisper-dry brut perfect for understated toasts and smoldering glances.

Dinner at Kelly's has a certain roadhouse simplicity to it -- large, hearty portions; seemingly uncomplicated dishes -- but is elevated to a higher, bolder place by clever twists on traditional fare. Our calamari ($10.25) -- perhaps a pound of deep-fried squid -- was served with a tangy, Thai citrus chile sauce and sweet soy, a potent combination that leapt off the plate and introduced itself without so much as a hint of reserve.

Likewise, the roast salmon Provençal salad ($11.95) with a light mustard vinaigrette proved a fearless mix. A warm, lightly crisp fillet set atop a cool pile of greens, cherry tomatoes, new potatoes, whole olives, and some of the greenest green beans I've ever seen, the salmon blurred the line between salad and entree, and would make an excellent birthday lunch next year if someone from Kelly's would be kind enough to drop one off. Though not as impressive, the Caesar salad ($7.25) with fine-grated Asiago did have some of the biggest croutons I've ever seen -- baby-fist-sized cubes of airy brioche.

Visiting Kelly's without spending time on the bayside deck is a sign that you're not living hard enough. As I stepped out for a smoke, herculean tankers floated on the oil-black water, and the heavens shone magnificently, invoking a calm, quiet state in which I could reflect on the years behind me, and those that lie ahead. It's been a pretty good ride so far, I realized, this series of moments that will unfold, each coloring the next, until there are no more moments to be had.

After that, well, there's no way of knowing. Maybe there is another level, maybe nothing at all, which is the one great mystery of our existence. But for now, I have a few marks I'd like to make, and I found myself recalling a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. So simple, so true, and, most important, so relevant to my present endeavor, which is why, as I stepped back inside, I decided a mere week wasn't enough to celebrate the gift of life.

As luck would have it, entrees kicked my birthmonth into high gear. The grilled flank steak ($13.95) over braised black beans with salsa fresca was, once again, a clever take on a conventional dish -- the braising added a certain richness to the beans, and the thin-cut strips of steak fought back a little as we chewed, forcing us to savor them longer than we would have a less fibrous cut of beef. Equally satisfying was the fish of the day ($13.95), a juicy slab of swordfish topped with sautéed eggplant and sweet peppers, served over a bed of wild rice.

Because this was my birthmonth -- which meant I could order whatever the hell I wanted -- our third entree was what you might call a simple indulgence: the Kelly's Mission Rock burger with cheese ($9). Served on a toasted bun with fresh-cut, whole-potato fries, this half-pound behemoth held its own and then some when compared to the hundreds of burgers I consumed in my youth (now that I'm older and more sophisticated, I eat burritos), and left me wishing only that my jaw opened a bit wider, so I could have enjoyed more of it with each bite.

Desserts at Kelly's are nicely done, but probably won't win any awards. Michelle's Chocolate Decadence ($6) -- a small tart filled with bittersweet mousse -- was adequate, but didn't live up to its name, while my cheesecake ($6) with slices of fresh strawberry was more effective, a simple pastry that accomplished its goal without calling more attention to itself than warranted.

To finish things off, I ordered one last dram of sweetness: Mrs. Butterworth herself, Frangelico ($5.50). A syrupy blend of hazelnut-infused enchantment, the Frangelico tasted even sweeter as a result of the phrase printed on our bill: "todo es posible" (everything is possible). Though I'm not so gullible as to believe this kindhearted lie -- I mean, it is simply not possible for me to enjoy step aerobics -- the thought stayed with me as we departed, and was rendered particularly poignant by what greeted us next: the shimmering skyline of San Francisco.

Ah, but that view never ceases to amaze me, both for its beauty and because it reveals a place where, I like to think, the things I want out of life are there for the taking, provided I have the tenacity to track them down. Of course, there will be obstacles, disappointments, setbacks, perhaps worse, and even a simple goal, like spending a month celebrating life, may prove beyond my ability. But still, I have to give it everything I've got. Which led to one final upgrade: As we headed back to the city, I vowed to make that night the first in what will, hopefully, be a fabulous birthyear.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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