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Restaurants & Bars 10

Family of 6 report - Zuni Cafe - California Mediterranean

Native SF in Midwest | Mar 31, 200603:57 PM

Our 6:15 pm visit to Zuni Café started with a bit of a stumble but a fast recovery. We had called two days prior to increase our party size from 7 to 9 as my parents seemed to be more and more interested in spending mealtime with us and were told this was no problem. When we arrived, we were directed to a table for 7 and when we pointed out the error, the hostess disappeared for several minutes leaving us standing around the table drawing curious stares from the other diners. Of course a family including a toddler in a nice restaurant draws attention in its own right, the proverbial, “I hope that kid stays quiet” look.

After about 3 minutes, the manager warmly greeted me and asked who I spoke to when I made the change. This always bothers me as if that is the real issue. Are they saying I am telling a lie? If I was, do they have the expertise to determine my truthfulness? Will they sack the offending party for their woeful transgression? Does the integrity of my answer determine if a larger table will suddenly become available or if we be shown the door? I can understand a young, inexperienced hostess asking such a question, but a manager should simply accommodate, or, if that is impossible, profusely apologize and look into splitting the group. The questioning serves little purpose. Those in the service industries, please take heed of this. It starts things off poorly when expectations are already raised somewhat and could impact your server’s tip, which it certainly did not in our case.

In short, he found a table near the back, on the second floor, with less of a view, but better suited to a family who does not want to disturb other diners’ evening.

We immediately placed orders for two of the highly recommended chicken, which takes an hour to prepare. Three of the kids requested Pellagrino sparkling water and the rest of us stayed with tap water. While waiting, a wonderful whole grain sourdough was delivered with sweet cream butter. This had an excellent body and crust.

I explained we were going to be eating family style and already had a basis for a tasting menu in place, but was open to suggestions. Our server, Steven gave very good guidance.

We began with two salads, an endive salad with kumquats, pistachios and goat cheese vinaigrette ($8.5) and the Zuni Caesar ($9). The endive was liked by all and a refreshing switch from many of the overpowered balsamic-based salads that are so popular. The mild taste of the endive was very evident due to the sparse use of cheese and dressing. This to me is a prototypical California organic salad, very refreshing.

The Caesar was wonderful and a true treat. They make good use of anchovy paste to provide a mildly strong taste. The hint of Worcestershire and lemon juice was just right. The amount of parmesan on top was a perfect accent. I have never enjoyed a Caesar more. My 8 year old attacked it with aplomb and asked for more. Highly recommended.

Next came out the two bowls we ordered, the cheese Polenta ($5.5) and the cauliflower soup ($7.5) made with cilantro and yogurt. The polenta was quite good, but likely a mis-order on my part when compared to the rest of the selections. It stood out as too heavy for the rest of the pre-entrée items. It was very good none the less and if you like polenta, it is good to try. However, given the variety of polenta recipes out there, some possibly used by your mother or grandmother, the likelihood for comparison to your favorite version is high and you might be disappointed. For those new to polenta, such as my kids, it is a safe, comfort food type item that will likely be enjoyed by all. My kids loved it.

The star at this point was the cauliflower soup. I do not remember which hound recommended this, but to you, thank you. This was so delightful and seemed a perfect compliment to either salad. The family loved it and my wife in particular raved about it. Highly recommended. Highly.

For the main courses, we opted for the previously ordered chicken with warm bread salad with scallions (2 x $39); grilled “Blue Nose” bass with French fingerling potatoes, asparagus, caper-shallot vinaigrette and hard-cooked egg ($26); and house cured pork loin rolled in mustard seed with buttermilk mashed potatoes and wilted spinach ($28). We had considered the squab and rabbit dishes too, but the vote from the kids was they did not want to see them on the table, this was understandable.

The expectations for the chicken were so high, they could not be exceeded. It was very, very good. It was crisp, moist and perfectly flavored. I have enjoyed one better roasted chicken in a suburb of New Orleans that exceeded it soundly, but that is the only example that beats this dish. These are also some healthy-sized birds! We could only eat one of the two and sent the other home with my parents. The warm bread salad underneath was also outstanding. I inquired if it was possible to order the chicken ahead of time to avoid the wait and Steven said this was tried in the past, but logistical issues forced the cancellation of that. I would suggest that all order one of these and other items too with the plan to take the rest of the chicken pieces home for the next day. A must item.

The pork loin was liked by those who enjoy smoked meats. I do not feel this is something that will be long lived on the menu as it really had nothing exceptional about it. Perhaps the availability of smoked meats back in the Midwest curbed my enthusiasm for this dish. No one made any comments for it other than it was good. The prevalence of mustard was quite overbearing in my mind. The bitter mustard greens on top were loved by one daughter, but shunned by the rest of us.

The bass was a surprise hit. My wife doesn’t care for fish, but commented she liked it. The kids practically fought over it. In hind sight, we should have ordered two of the bass and one of the chicken dishes as the fish portion was rather small and very hard to share among the group. This is not necessarily a mild fish dish and far from the cod or whitefish fish sticks that some kids are used to, but if your kids like fish dishes, they would like this. Recommended by the little hounds highly.

We were pleased to see the dessert menu included a small selection of cheeses ($5.25 ea.). We ordered the Cowgirl Creamery fromage blanc drizzled with olive oil and cracked black pepper. Smooth and creamy and delicious when spread on more of the sumptuous sourdough. The other was the Pecorino Ginepro with dried cherries in a small amount of balsamic. This was also good and although I am aware of the high price of such a cheese, the four, silver dollar sized slices (thickness too), were a little slim. I still feel the cheese presentation at Gary Danko is number one and everyone else seems to not measure up. Recommended for the coursing between entrees and desserts, but pricey.

For desserts we tried several. The Braeburn apple tart with vanilla ice cream ($7) was as expected and very nice and enjoyed by all. The Gateau Victoire flourless cake with fresh whipped cream (2 x $6.25) was a nice change from the molten cakes that seem to be everywhere. It was both rich and light at the same time. Highly recommended, but ever so slightly dry, so consider an espresso or port alongside. The 2.5 year old and the rest of us fell over for the server-recommended Minneola tangelo granita ($6). The trailer-park description is it tastes a bit like frozen juice concentrate scooped out and into a parfait glass. That is not fair to the dish, but a decent basis for you to describe to less adventuresome guests or children. We were pleased with all.

Zuni was wonderful and a place worthy of its reputation. We will add it to the list of annual repeat places and hope that others will be interested in trying it. It is wonderfully lively and yet romantic. The kitchen was wonderfully immaculate, I peeked several times, and the wait staff very dedicated and well versed in anticipating every need with very unobtrusive, timely service and excellent coursing.

Total with tip $330.00.

On the way out, a familiar face greeted us. Our primary waiter from The Slanted Door the previous day was dining there himself and recognized the baby and myself. He excused himself from his date and quickly approached me. He was curious about how we were making such good choices for restaurants and where we had been to and what was yet to come. He wrote down Aziza and Bodega Bistro after our conversation. We was not ready to finish the conversation, but due to the toddler’s impatience and the look on his date’s face, I thought it was best to excuse myself. In reply to his question, “Where did you find out about all of these great places?” I merely replied, “Friends.” And that is how I have come to feel about many of you hounds on the board. Thank you all for the contributions to our vacation.

Next up: Our favorite from last year, Limon – Peruvian in the Mission District.



Previous posts:

- The Slanted Door

- R & G Lounge – Chinese

- Matterhorn – Swiss Fondue

- Fresca on Fillmore - Peruvian:

- Burma Super Star - Burmese:

- Sultan (cancelled) actually Nick's Seafood stand in wharf area

- Tajine - Moroccan

- Bodega Bistro - Vietnamese

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