Thursday, March 23, 2006

Zuni Café - San Francisco, Ca

Chef Scott and I had attended the SF Symphony (some Russian--Mstislav Rastropovich--conducting very ponderous and stately renditions of Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Piano Concerto No. 1, and Symphony No. 5) and decided that, following the show, this would be a perfect time to finally hit up the SF California Cuisine institution that is Zuni.

Me and Chef Scott.

The Space:
A series of paradoxes. Cramped but spacious. Crowded but open. Meandering but homey. Owing to its location on a corner intersection on Market, entering Zuni is like entering a big slice of pie from the point. A big slice of pie with beautiful high ceilings. In the very front of the restaurant are a handful of tightly packed tables that are left available at all times for walk-ups. A long copper bar runs along the left side of the front of the restaurant (limited but well-thought out selection, no draft beer). On the right behind the host's station is a staircase leading to upstairs seating. We were lead past the bar, through the first dining area to the big dining space in the rear. We sat at a corner banquette, directly across from the famed wood-fired brick oven (and a stack of logs). Tables are stuck into Zuni's every corner, but always in a very thought out way with tables seemingly custom-built for the unusual nooks (including triangles and pentagons). It's definitely eclectic but executed beautifully.

The Wine:
Went with a 2003 Pouilly-Fuissé after the 2004 Sancerre we were eyeing proved unavailable. Citrus-y with a nice minerality. Served at a perfect temperature from the start.

First Course:
Opted for three appetizers, small plates, or whatever you want to call them to whet our appetites before the main course (having decided from the start to go with the chicken). First out of the chute was "Pepette's graisserons" which our server described as a sort of pâté made of pork and duck. We received six cubes of the graisserons, which essentially seemed to be a terrine of the meats and herbs, served cold. From how it was described, I was expecting something saltier and fattier than what we received--the pork and duck flavors were distinct and delicious. I would've liked some stronger flavor--either mixed in in the form of a sharp spice, or with a sauce--Scott suggested a horseradish or mustard sauce. More interesting than the graisserons was the side of winter vegetable slaw that came with the dish. Fresh shredded veggies dressed with a simple mayo, it was succinct and flavorful.

Next up was the Tuscan white bean and chard soup. As seems to be the theme of California Cuisine, this was direct, uninflected, and tasty. It consisted of a handful of big white beans and pieces of chard floating in a deep, flavorful chicken stock (or so we surmised). It was the best stock I've had. The beans lent a slight creaminess to the soup. Would've liked more chard.

Last up was our orange and grapefruit salad with green olives and fresh onions. This presented the only hiccup of the evening. It's not that this salad wasn't good--it was great and fresh with a surprising mix of flavors. The onions were sharp, crisp, and delicious. The problem was that in the process of coursing out our meal, we ended up getting the citrus with our chicken. This citrus would've been better enjoyed either first or with a substantial break between it and the chicken so it would serve as a palate cleanser (this, I think, was our server's intention). Regardless, the citrus salad became a tasty but forgotten sideshow to the main event when it arrived.

First time at Zuni for dinner, have to try the roast chicken for two. Cooked in that brick oven for close to an hour (at who knows how high a temperature), the two or so pound chicken comes to the table cut into eighths (two legs, two wings, two thighs, two breasts) perched atop a mound of warm bread salad with roccola, currants, and pine nuts. The chicken was great--roasted beautifully with a crisp salty skin and and subtle herb flavors that permeated the meat throughout. A few parts were a little dry (unavoidable when roasting at such a high temperature), but for the most part the meat was nice, juicy, and pulled easily off the bone. The dark meat in particular was great. We both agreed that the thigh meat was the showcase--though I had a nice piece from the leg that was an orgasmic mix of salty skin and rich dark meat.

As great (and simple) as the chicken was, it was surpassed in greatness (and simplicity) by the generous serving of the warm bread salad. The bread is grilled and then torn into big chunks, tossed with roccola, pine nuts, and dried currants and then dressed with a warm balsamic vinaigrette. The acidity permeated the bread with a nice sharpness, the roccola was bright and pepperty, the pine nuts and currants were, well, pine nuts and currants. Meaning they were delicious. Bites that included all the components of the salad with a bite of chicken had a gestalt that was impossible to beat.

We went with the Gâteau Victoire, a flourless chocolate cake served with whipped cream. It was simple and bittersweet--bordering on bland--with a light airy texture. I would've liked a warm chocolate or fruit sauce accompanying it, the room temperature cake not being all that interesting by itself. Good but not great.

The double espresso I had was nice, slightly smoky, with a mild bitterness.

In Conclusion:
Zuni was great. It also illustrated how friendly, attentive (albeit idiocyncratic) service--we never had to ask for anything, silverware was refreshed, water refilled, wine attended, all without being overly intrusive--and a beautiful well-executed space can enhance the dining experience. What Zuni offered was California cuisine--beautiful ingredients impeccably prepared. There was nothing innovative, unusual, or big with spice or flavor beyond the elegant flavors of the ingredients themselves (not Bendean, for instance). The food at Zuni is something that the attentive and mildly talented home cook could easily replicate with patience and the right ingredients (and a 700 degree wood-fired oven in the case of the chicken)--but the home cook could not replicate the experience of eating at Zuni. This is what sets places like Zuni Café and Chez Panisse Café apart from the myriad California Cuisine pretenders--attnetion, care, and execution.

As a side note, Scott and I discussed our favorite meals since we started these dining excursions and we plunked Zuni in the Number Two spot after the joint 1a and 1b positions of Bendean and Chez Panisse Café (both incredible for very different reasons).

Zuni Café
Cuisine: Cal-Med
Entrée price range: $14-$28 (chicken for two--$39)
HFF's cost for two (three appetizers, chicken for two, one dessert, one bottle of wine, one espresso, tax, generous tip): $155
Reservations: 415-552-2522 or
1658 Market St. (at Gough)
San Francisco, CA 94102

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