The View of the kitchen from our table at the Zuni Café
Once again, it was time for my last night in the Bay area, and once again, I knew Zuni was the right place to visit. I had been dying for Husband to try it, because I thought it was perfect for him, and I was right. I had originally tried to secure a reservation for our first night in town, and I'm glad I couldn't, because all of our other dining experiences would have paled in comparison.
For the uninitiated, Judy Rogers is a James Beard award-winning chef, if that means anything to you, and her style is simple: use the best possible ingredients and pair them in the best possible way. Simple, but still no mean feat. If Zuni were in Columbus, I would seriously consider eating there once a week. It's that much of a gem - and it's reasonably priced, which is even better.
As is our want to do, we opted for several appetizers instead of an entree. We like to sample the menu without getting bored, which is why, for the last time, we did not get the chicken. Although we were seated in what is possibly the best seat in the house - a table on a tiny little mezzanine which overlooks the kitchen, so I got to see a chef working the wood fired oven, and the chicken did look delicious. This chef immediately looked up and caught me taking pictures (no, I was not using a flash) and I became shy, so I didn't get as many good pictures of his work as I wanted. It was really something to see someone cooking meat in a wood fired oven - people do pizza in a wood-fired oven all the time, and while that takes talent, it can usually be accomplished in about 10 minutes. Cooking giant pork chops and entire chickens, on the other hand, really requires some skill, and we were quite impressed; we both decided that must be the top position in the kitchen (sorry for the bad pic; I was trying to be discreet but he kept spotting my attempts):
Being a Sunday night, they were out of a few things we wanted from the raw bar - the kumomoto oysters, and the periwinkles. Neither of us have had periwinkles before per se (although we have had escargot, and being that both are snails, I suppose we have, but I digress). So we opted for another variety (alas, neither of us can recall what they were). Now, if you hate oysters or you think you hate oysters, take another look at them. It was, after all, at Zuni that I learned to love raw oysters for the first time, thanks to our well-informed server. I was also influenced by a scene in A Cook's Tour, where Anthony Bourdain talks about eating raw oysters in France and the epiphanal experience it was for him. So here's what you do - after, of course, visiting a reputable source for your oysters - bring the oyster to your nose and close your eyes. Smell the first time you visited the ocean, the first time you stood in the shallow water and felt the salty breeze on your face. Eating an oyster is like eating that experience, every time. It should smell salty, and oceanic - not like rotten fish, mind you, but like lots of fish living in the ocean, like vacation. All oysters have different flavors and characteristics, some as a result of their species, but variations are largely due to their location and diet. Oysters are especially savory and delicious because they produce MSG to balance their salt levels in the ocean. (I'm going to quote Ruhlman here - see McGee.) People seem to be divided on accouterments for oysters; traditionally, a squeeze of lemon or a mignonette - an acidic sauce made from champagne vinegar, black pepper and shallots - make for a nice foil to the richness of the oyster. Husband prefers his unadulterated, but I am quite fond of mignonette, and like a little drizzled over. Hmm. Seems I've made this post more about the oysters and less about Zuni. I'll fix that by saying Zuni takes their oysters seriously, they are shucked to order in the wide open, and are served with a lemon wedge and a scathingly acidic mignonette (which, in this case, is a good thing). Our oysters being shucked:
And our oysters:
Next up was a frisée salad with rabbit in a saffron vinaigrette. This was a salad so nice, we hadn't finished the first one when we had to order a second. Seriously - it was one of the best things I have eaten in a long, long time. And again, amazingly simple and well-balanced. Just the simple ingredients - the frisée, the perfectly sweet vinaigrette, the rabbit loin, and then little rabbit lardons - perhaps a confit of belly or leg, rendered to resemble bacon, and just a few chopped almonds to lend sweetness and texture. Because frisée is so bitter, it requires more than just a good dressing: a good dose of salt will completely transform the bitterness. Many times when presented with a frisée, I find I have to add salt for myself to balance the bitterness. Not so here. It was truly amazing:
Of course, we had to order a bowl of polenta, which was perfection - molten hot, so that the mascarpone topping it just melted right in, adding creaminess. Heaven. I love polenta. For years, I worked with a Chef who was a polenta/grits master, and I miss eating the leftovers at the end of the evening (my waistline doesn't, to be sure, as Chef thought equal parts cream and stock should be used in the cooking of the cornmeal, and then about half as much butter should be stirred in. Yikes. Yikes, but Yum.) I didn't take a picture of the polenta, because I had it on my previous visit, and it looks about the same.
We also had housed-cured anchovies, along with shaved extra aged Parmesan, celery, and house cured niçoise olives (I detected a curious but tasty note of vanilla in the olive brine. Very interesting). I hate to beat a dead horse here, or anchovy, or whatever, but again - the closest attention paid to the simplest ingredients, everything treated remarkably well. It can be so difficult to do correctly, it takes such an innate and correct understanding of each ingredient as an individual and the dish as a whole. It can be difficult, and yet Zuni manages to hit every note:
And then there were the ricotta gnocchi. Oh.My. I am going to try to replicate these at my earliest opportunity, although I remember a friend trying to do it and calling me in a panic because they didn't call for flour, and seemed impossible. Husband and I surmised they might make their own ricotta at Zuni, or else they use a very dry version produced somewhere especially for them. It's very hard to find drier ricotta, which is why it's really hard to make a proper cannoli filling. Again, the simplicity was the big winner here - the heavenly, lighter-than-air dumplings were swimming in a light broth of lemony butter, with spinach to cut through the richness:
And then there was a plate of thinly sliced Serrano ham, rich and salty, paired with a celeriac slaw and pomegranate seeds. Again, a fine pairing of perfect, simple ingredients. Something I hope to attempt to recreate for my Christmas party, for anyone lucky enough to be invited:
And then, alas, we had come to dessert. Typically, Husband refuses to share or participate in any sort of dessert. Usually this means I don't get anything either, but whilst on vacation I decided to order whatever I wanted. Furthermore, the Zuni Café cookbook is the source for a very fine chocolate pot du creme recipe which I have made several times, so when I saw the caramel pot du creme on the menu, I knew I had to have it. Ethereal. I have no idea how they get the texture so amazingly smooth and flawless, but it was really, really good. A perfect match with Husband's Germain Robin brandy, but not so great with my grappa (which I did kind of realize upon ordering). Such is life:
Don't you just hate a glowing review? The bartender was almost comically snooty. Seriously, the typical fussy, accented European maitre d' sort of snob, who could barely summon the desire to even pour us a glass of wine. Table service seemed a little uninspired, compared with my last visit; actually the foodrunner/backwaiter was much more personalable than our server, so I would ask the managers of Zuni to promote the friendly backwaiter with the buzzed hair, and apologize that I couldn't find you to give you some extra grease at the end of our dinner. But, to close on a positive, the bread at Zuni is fantastic - I believe baked in house in that wood oven - and they give you salt! as they are marking the tables. Not that I really needed to add salt to anything (except the very good butter), but I'm always comforted knowing it's there if I need it.
I almost hated to begin with our last meal, but the truth is, I didn't take a lot of pictures of food on this trip (our host will certainly laugh at this, as he was amazed by how many times we automatically paused before eating to photograph our food; it's a habit by this point); I hope you won't be too disappointed if I have to use nothing but my words to recreate our experiences, I just wanted to relax and take a vacation.
I hope to have the rest of the trip written up very soon! I would encourage everyone to purchase the Zuni Café cookbook; it's really great (it taught me everything I know about roasting a chicken). It's full of precise tips and instructions and practical kitchen advice.
Info: The Zuni Café 1658 Market St. 415.552.2522