On Friday night, I had the great pleasure to have dinner at Za in Pennington. I grew up in Pennington, but my family moved away in the 1970s while I was in college. Because the town is dry, and most restaurants make a good part of their profit from alcohol, there weren't any restaurants there (even pizza!) when I was a kid.
I should preface my review by saying that all the diners are accomplished cooks and also have eaten at many great restaurants all over the area and the world.
My group of four women had a lovely time. We were greeted warmly by the kitchen door. Letting us get a glimpse of the kitchen before we ate showed a great confidence that seeing the "back room" would only be enticing to us. It also demonstrated caring for the customers, since using the front door on such a cold night would have meant repeated unwelcome blasts to the diners.
Toasted flatbread drizzled with olive oil and fresh herbs greeted us almost immediately, as did the proper wine glasses for the wine we brought. It may seem like a small thing, but I was impressed that the waiter poured the wine--sometimes in a BYOB, that means the customer is completely in charge of the wine.
We started with the lentil salad, (warm green lentils, sauteed spinach, cherry tomatoes, seasoned particularly with cumin) that two originally planned to share, but it turned out to be nice appetizer for all four of us. At $12, it had seemed a little pricey to me on the menu, but it was a good value for the portions--and the tastiness.
Two of the women shared one of the lobster specials--the one with the shrimp. That was definitely a smart move--the portion was really generous even for two, and any one person who would eat that much would be indulging in serious gluttony. At $39, it was very fairly priced as a main course for two. This was the second time these two had ordered this particular dish, so it was clearly a hit with them!
Of the other two, one had the day boat scallops, seared and on a bed of peanut pasta with bok choy. There were also some sauces, wasabi (drizzled on the plate) and a separate small cup with a ginger sauce. The other (me) had the Berkshire pork chop. Wow! The chop was great--juicy, meaty, with a yummy glaze. The highlight was the "hash" it was served on, made of roasted potatoes, chorizo, chopped haricot vert and raw scallions. I'd be delighted just to have a bowl of the hash. I think each of those dishes was $24/$25.
We finished with decaf capuccinos. The whole bill was $155 before tax.
Now I know some people may think this is a little expensive, and certainly if I lived in the area I wouldn't go to Za as just a casual "I don't feel like cooking" kind of trip. However, let's put these prices in a different sort of light. This is definitely the kind of food where most people would order wine. Would you rather pay $30-$40 for a bottle of wine, with main courses running about $5 less? Your total bill would be higher, you'd have a smaller selection of wine, yet you might feel that the food prices were more reasonable. Restaurants have to make profit somewhere, and I felt the high quality of ingredients and preparation--and final product deliciousness--made the prices quite defensible.
As for the service, it was perfect. Attentive without being overwhelming, we were well cared for. My only complaint is that they knew we'd be sharing the lentil salad (they brought an extra plate), but no serving utensil came with the dish. We couldn't get anyone's attention quickly, so we just used our own (unused at that point) forks. Not a big deal.
147 West Delaware Avenue, Pennington, NJ