Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Zuni Cafe - San Francisco

zuni I wanted to love Zuni Cafe. I really did. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one of my all-time favorites, not merely a compendium of recipes but a passionate and wonderfully written guide to how to cook with literally all five of your senses. It's worth the price just for Chef Judy Rodgers' roast chicken recipe alone, even if it is widely available on the internet.[1] I actually don't often do recipes directly from the book, but there are any number of tips I've picked up from reading, and re-reading, that have been invaluable. And besides, notwithstanding my interest in more contemporary techniques, I usually enjoy the "California school" of ingredient-driven cooking of which Zuni is a paragon.

This was my second visit to Zuni, actually. The first was a couple years ago, when Little Miss F and I (having come out to SF a day before the rest of the family) went and ordered the legendary roast chicken. We had a perfectly enjoyable meal. Was it the best roast chicken I've ever had? Interestingly, no - as I noted back then, that honor actually goes to Miami's Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, which does an unabashed riff on the Zuni chicken, including basically every component but the bread cubes (which is a shame). It's possible Michael's chicken had an unfair advantage because we were eating it straight from the wood-fired oven, and (at our request) it was served whole so we got to pick on the delightfully juicy carcass. But that story's been told elsewhere.[2]

This time we had the whole crew together and I had the liberty of exploring some of the less-iconic items on the menu. We started with some Hog Island kumamoto oysters (breaking the "months with an R" rule for the occasion), a Caesar salad, and an heirloom tomato salad, then a spinach soup, a roasted squab, and a tagliata, along with orders of polenta and shoestring fries.

I do love the space itself, a flat-iron shaped wedge with a long bar on the ground floor, some seating around the kitchen area with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Market Street, and a quirky upstairs area with several little passageways, nooks and crannies. Like our last visit, we were seated on a cozy perch in the second floor that overlooks the downstairs dining room and a bit of the kitchen.

The Caesar was indeed an excellent rendition, another of the iconic Zuni dishes (the burger is probably the third - and it acquired its fame well before the current burger trend). In the cookbook, Chef Rodgers acknowledges "There is nothing clever, original, or mysterious about this Caesar salad. The main 'trick' we rely on is top-notch ingredients, freshly prepared."[3] It works. This was as fine a Caesar salad as I've ever had.

The heirloom tomato salad, on the other hand, was a real disappointment. On our earlier visit a couple years ago I had a tomato salad (it was summer after all) and it came with a bountiful and generous variety of plump, sweet, and tart heirloom tomato slices simply dressed with good olive oil and coarse salt. This time around - well, I had no idea you could slice tomatoes on a mandoline, but I'd swear that's what they had done. This $10 salad came with about 10 paper-thin slices of tomato, along with some thinly sliced cucumber, a scatter of green onion, and again a dose of good olive oil and salt. Aside from being almost absurdly ungenerous, the slicing of the tomatoes as thin as a pounded carpaccio robbed them of any semblance of juicy goodness. I mean, these are tomatoes, not truffles, after all.

(continued ...)

The shoestring fries were brought out before the main courses arrived, a tempting pile of thinly sliced, pleasingly crisp, and expertly greaseless fries. They were gone in minutes. I was a little puzzled when the salads and fries came out before the oysters, and when I asked about them I found out why: our waitress had forgotten to put in the order for the oysters. After the reminder, they came out about 20 seconds before our main courses arrived. I was glad I asked - they were some of the best I've had, plump, briny and fresh, with a perfect simple mignonette to accompany.

The rest of the dinner was frustratingly underwhelming. The spinach soup (which Mrs. F had as a main) was deeply green and hearty, but entirely one-dimensional. The squab I ordered was overdone and underflavored, the breast dry and the legs pretty much nothing but skin and bone (though the skin was certainly worth picking off those bones). The accompaniments - roasted Super Sweet 100 tomatoes (I'm guessing) and a cannelini bean mash - were decent but did little to compliment the bird. The "tagliata" used a nice grass-fed Marin Sun Farms strip steak, but again covered up a lack of generosity with incredibly thin slices spread over half the plate (I've never seen a tagliata sliced so thin - I'm accustomed to something like 1/4 inch slices, not deli meat thickness) - which again robbed the item of its juiciness and textural pleasure. It was also not cooked at high enough heat to crisp up or render out either the external or internal ribbons of fat, leading to some tough chewing. The tagliata's accompaniments also were very similar to those for the squab - big white beans and halved roasted tomatoes, along with a tangle of wilted greens. I recognize it's tomato season, but a little more variety would be nice, particularly when there's only about five proteins on the entire menu. The polenta, topped with freshly shaved parmesan, was hearty and satisfying but nothing special (though in fairness, it's hard to expect a bowl of polenta to be special).

A 2006 Paolo Scavino Barbera d'Alba was a touch high in acidity on its own, but worked nicely with the food, particularly the dishes with tomato (of which there were several).

We closed out with a couple desserts and a cheese. Little Miss F had a "meringata," soft meringues layered with sliced stone fruit (nectarines? peaches? I've forgotten) and Lillet-flavored whipped cream. This was a hit; indeed, after a few bites she announced: "This dessert IS me." Frod Jr. - of course - had the Gateau Victoire, as soon as he found out that it was a flourless chocolate cake. It was good, but dryer and less luscious than many other versions we've had. The cheese course featured a Cowgirl Creamery Inverness, a cheese I'd not seen before (made in the style of a French chaource). It was nicely paired with slivered fennel and zante grapes, but again the portioning was almost absurd. The little nub of cheese looked like it was about the size of the first joint of my thumb - possibly only a quarter of the 2 oz. round of cheese. A glass of Pierre-Bise Chaume Coteaux du Layon (a sweet Chenin Blanc) helped assuage the slight (so did the fact that, in retrospect, it was $5.25 and not more).

I am not the kind of diner that judges dishes by portion size, but for this meal it was almost impossible not to do so. Part of it is that this kind of preciosity seems so out of place given the style of cooking that Zuni Cafe embodies. This is unfussy, rustic, ingredient-driven food. I don't expect - or want - paper-thin, artfully arranged slivers of tomato or delicate ribbons of steak. But even more importantly, these techniques and presentations actually robbed the ingredients of their glory. Also frustrating was that when we strayed away from the restaurant's "classic" dishes, the execution level and the flavor combinations seemed to suffer a real drop-off.

It's hard for me to believe that a restaurant of Zuni's stature could have garnered its reputation exclusively on a few signature items, but perhaps that's the case. Indeed, the recurring themes in this thread on favorite menu items mostly echo those iconic Zuni dishes: oysters, Caesar salad, roast chicken, burger (only available at lunch). Maybe if we return, we just stick with the classics.

Zuni Cafe
1658 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Zuni Cafe on Urbanspoon

[1]This recipe, incidentally, embodies everything I find both so endearing and so helpful about the Zuni cookbook. The directions start off with a paragraph-long exposition on what type of chicken is best to use. This then leads to one of the key "tricks" I picked up from the book - early and aggressive salting of meats. Then along the way are a bunch of gems - her description of the bread salad as "sort of a scrappy extramural stuffing," the insistence on the importance of tasting as you go, the detailed and specific instructions (including the simple genius of using the pan drippings to flavor and dress the bread salad), and the vivid description of the different textures you get at the end ("It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones.").

[2]Michael's chicken also has the advantage of being nearly 1/3 as expensive as Zuni's - $31 vs. $48.

[3]Again, here's another good example of the simple but invaluable tips the book offers instead of just directing blind adherence to a recipe: "As you assemble your impeccable ingredients, bear in mind that most vary from day to day and place to place. ... Start with them, then smell and taste each component each time you make the salad, adjusting for your palate, and remember what you like and how you got there."


  1. Frodnessor, thanks for a great review. I do think that, for better or worse, Zuni is a place where one needs to stick to the classics, and in that vein, I must say that the other classic that you apparently missed (and that is a must order for me whenever I dine there, which admittedly is not often) is the espresso granita. Probably not something you'd want a kid to try unless they are used to caffeine, but yum!


  2. You're right, I should have listed the espresso granita among the iconic Zuni items (and no, we haven't tried it). For better or worse, my daughter loves the taste of coffee and likely would have been thrilled with it. Whether we would have been thrilled the rest of the night is another story.