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Your Plates Are Numbered: Los Gatos' 180 serves up hearty plates that show just the right amount of culinary restraint.

Degree of Style

Big flavors and metropolitan swank are the stuff of Los Gatos' 180

By Stett Holbrook

What is it with restaurant names and numbers in Los Gatos? There's Three Degrees Restaurant & Bar in the Toll House hotel and now a few blocks down there's 180 Restaurant & Lounge. The name is supposed to mean that it's 180 degrees different from Mountain Charley's next door, a saloon that shares the same ownership as the restaurant.

And different it is. With its slate gray walls, black tablecloths and a backlit yellow onyx bar, 180 offers a little slice of SOMA swank in a North Santa Cruz Avenue location. And then there's what my friends call the "chick in the box," a lingerie-clad female reclining in a glass cube mounted in the wall above the lounge. Performance art? Voyeurism? You definitely won't find that at Mountain Charley's. Nor will you find chef Nick Difu's upscale comfort food.

Difu makes the kind of food I daydream about at the end of a long backpacking trip or some kind of extended physical exertion coupled with gustatory deprivation. As I slog through a hike or bike ride, I imagine a long, slow meal of big satisfying flavors of roasted meats and vegetables, mashed potatoes and herb-flecked gravy washed down with a big red wine.

Polishing off a plate of 180's pan-roasted meatloaf with wild mushroom gravy ($22) recently, I knew I'd found the place to sate my post-wilderness hunger. The meatloaf has a refinement and lightness uncommon for a loaf of meat. The wild mushroom gravy and herby mashed potatoes felt as comforting and familiar as Thanksgiving dinner, minus the relatives.

Also scoring high on the comfort meter was the pancetta and cherry-stuffed Kurabuta pork tenderloin ($24). It's easy to overcook this lean cut of meat, but here it's tender and juicy. Best of all was the barely sweet vanilla-infused port wine sauce poured over the pork. Roasted pork lends itself well to the restrained use of fruit and the vanilla accent played off those dulcet notes perfectly. The creamy, almost cheesy, polenta served alongside made for a great accompaniment and helped mop up that excellent sauce.

Difu plans to change the menu to reflect the fall season, but I hope the honey-glazed beef short ribs ($24) hang around. The slow-cooked, deboned slab of tender meat is a quintessential autumnal dish, especially with the gut-filling smashed Yukon gold potatoes, sautéed chard and roasted garlic and savory rosemary demi-glace.

Much of Difu's cooking succeeds with its excess, but he shows restraint in the right places. Take the seared diver scallops ($25) atop a sea of Tuscan white beans and vegetable ragout. This is another dish that could go south with a less sure hand, but the shellfish is cooked with the tender respect it deserves.

Because 180 offers such big flavors and portions to match, it would be hard for me to eat here on a regular basis. Fortunately, Difu offers appetizer-sized portions of many entrees with a smaller caloric commitment. Still, I'd like to see more simple dishes to counter the over-the-top exuberance of the rest of the menu. Over the course of two visits, everything I tried exhibited the same hedonistic ethos.

Appetizers display more fireworks than main courses but some fizzle. The prawn cocktail ($12) was by far the most poorly executed dish I had at 180. Billed as basil-poached prawns with a sun-dried tomato pesto, what I got instead were four fat but mushy shrimp with little detectable flavor, let alone basil infusion. I'm guessing the pesto was supposed to be a riff on the classic cocktail sauce but the thick red goop was unappealing to the eye and the mouth. Sliced prosciutto and sautéed chard atop grilled garlic bread and Tuscan white beans ($9) sounded like homey Italian cooking but the starter was underseasoned and far less than the sum of its parts. Serving it all atop mixed salad green was superfluous.

Far better is the Dungeness crab and tiger prawn cake ($13). Served with more of those Tuscan white beans as well as braised baby spinach and drizzled with a basil beurre blanc, the cakes are rich and meaty and don't skimp on the seafood like so many crab cakes do. I also loved the grilled Mongolian baby back ribs ($11). The ribs had a thin, candylike crackle outside and juicy, meaty goodness inside. The cilantro lime butter drizzled on top is delicious example of Difu's penchant for gilding the lily.

Desserts ($6), alas, are not 180's strong suit. But I still left 180 on a sweet note. The restaurant and adjoining lounge fills up with a good-looking, young clientele as the night wears on and they give the place a lively buzz. The servers are young and friendly and aim to please. Difu himself walks around to check in with diners, a touch that goes a long way for me. In spite of a few misses, 180 is clearly the work of a chef who loves food and loves to eat.

180 Restaurant & Lounge
Address: 15 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos.
Phone: 408.399.1804.
Hours: Tues-Sat 5pm-10pm, Sun 5pm-9pm.
Price Range: $18-$36.

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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