Having lunch at a good restaurant is like finding civilization on sale. You enjoy the same setting and service as those who come for dinner, and — most important — get food from the same kitchen but pay a lot less.
Forty-Two Degrees occupies such a stunning space that it would be worth a lunch even if the food were lousy. It's a two-story vault whose west wall — mostly a set of glass doors — gently divides the main room from a large terrace where, in good weather, people can enjoy their lunch alfresco.
Above the bar, a broad chalkboard holds the day's specials, one of which on the day of our visit — “soupe de poisson avec halibut” — made us laugh. Whatever the French call halibut, they don't call it halibut. But the self-spoofing “soupe de poisson avec halibut” does sound a little more refined than “fish soup” (which to me implies murkiness), and the actual dish ($4.50) was beautifully refined. It consisted of a clear vegetable broth with pieces of poached halibut (nicely firm but tender) and a medley of red and gold tomato chunks. A tomatillo relish atop the halibut added a citrusy zing.
Another starter from the specials board was a salad ($6) consisting of slices of English cucumber, shaved carrots, and pea shoots dressed with a paprika vinaigrette that tingled with cayenne pepper. The cukes, with their crisp chilly flavor, and the carrots, with their sweetness, nicely balanced the bright fire of the dressing. One complaint: The awkwardly long slices of carrot and cucumber made it difficult to eat.
Among the main courses, housemade fettuccine ($8) featured tasty chunks of crisp salmon in a depressingly muddy sauce that resembled, in taste and consistency, a can of tomato paste. I salted and salted and salted, until the people at the next table began to look at me curiously. Cubes of sunburst squash added color if not much flavor, and the pasta itself furnished nothing beyond a pleasant texture; it was background noise, like Muzak, in a dish that needed rescuing from its own sauce.
But our disappointment about the pasta was eclipsed by the glory of the grilled salmon fillet ($9), which arrived on a bed of grilled fennel shavings and sweet corn, flecked with olives and capers and adorned with a coarse green-olive tapenade. The tapenade lent the dish a Proveneal accent, but hints of caramelization in the anise-flavored fennel added a dusky sweetness — a taste I'd never encountered before, and a delicious one.
My friend was willing to share his salmon fillet, and if I thought he was at all grudging about it, I couldn't blame him. I had nothing to share in return except dreary pasta. He too got the better dessert, a coffee creme brelee ($5) that officially belonged only to the dinner menu (proving that dinner does have its advantages). He managed to talk our enthusiastic, knowledgeable waitress into procuring it, and moments later she appeared with what looked like a small soup tureen.
Under a sugary, crunchy top, like ice on a winter lake, lay a custard of mousselike lightness with a powerful coffee flavor sweetened just enough to make its taste three-dimensional. It was like stirring up an excellent caffe latte and finding it miraculously thickened, and it was so large that I could swipe all I wanted without arousing resentment.
My dessert, a lemon tartlette ($4) with fresh blueberries and whipped cream, suffered from a slightly dry pastry that could have been flakier. The lemon filling, blueberries, and dollop of whipped cream made a pretty picture of color, like a summer sky, but while the lemon was deliciously sharp, it seemed to founder in the whipped cream's enveloping milkiness.
LuLu Cafe, the bistro that adjoins LuLu restaurant, is deep and narrow, almost like a gallery. Its high ceilings give it a thrilling tippiness. The place is taller than it is wide, and in its odd dimensions there's a sunlit hush that suits the eating of lunch.
Because the food comes from LuLu's kitchen, the menu is heavy on wood-roasted items. Despite the warm sunny day (with plenty of foot traffic drifting in from Folsom Street) we started with a whole portobello mushroom ($7.50), roasted and served on a bed of soft polenta. It was a wintry dish, but it didn't seem at all heavy. (But then, we were hungry.) The first bite was unimpressive, but after a slow start the tastes of the dish — the slightly sweet creaminess of the polenta and the meaty, almost winelike savor of the mushroom — gathered on the tongue. It was like eating chips and salsa; we couldn't stop putting bites in our mouths.
A seafood salad ($6.95) didn't quite come off. The assemblage of seafood — calamari, clams, and mussels — seemed modest considering the price. The haricots verts were a bit on the bulbous side, looking nearly like Blue Lake beans, and slices of potato were tender but added little flavor and no color. Everything seemed to have been steamed, and seasoned only with salt and pepper.
The lunch menu at LuLu Cafe features a variety of sandwiches, with wood-roasted meats or poultry. The roasted lamb sandwich ($6.25) came on slices of levain, too crusty for the purpose. Secondary ingredients included artichokes, cubes of roasted red pepper, and tapenade. It was tasty, but just a sandwich.
The calamari pizza ($8.95), on the other hand, was flawless, a tangy grouping of toppings on a crust that was both crisp and airy. Fontina cheese (paired with mozzarella) had a pungent bite, and over the top, aioli added a rich smoothness.
If you're over 30, you have to be careful about dessert — but the warm chocolate cake is worth a moment of recklessness. It's an almost flourless gateau whose inside retains a custardlike silkiness, and if that's not fattening enough, there's a scoop of housemade orange ice cream on the side.
The saddest thing about lunch time is that it ends, and you have to go back to work. But at least you can return to your desk with an echo of gustatory pleasure that didn't shatter your budget.
Forty-Two Degrees, 235 16th St, S.F., 777-5558. Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Wed-Sat 7 p.m.-midnight. Live jazz nightly.
LuLu Cafe, 816 Folsom St, S.F., 495-5775. Tues-Sun 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sun-Thurs 5:30-11 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5:30 p.m.-midnight.