From the outside, Zest Spirited Dining is nothing to look at. In fact, many moons ago, it used to be a Mexican restaurant called “Tang’s,” which had fairly decent Mexican food. I am sure that after Tang’s closed it was something else for a time, but the building is still a holdover from the 1970s and has an almost slump block appearance. The only pizazz the exterior has on the outside these days is a small arched canopy that covers the runner leading to the entrance.
I know Zest had been there for a while and I had heard good things about the place, but didn’t know quite what to expect. J. was more than happy to take a chance (probably because of my Svengali-like charms or, perhaps, the online menu). So, we made our reservations and drove to 16th Street and Indian School Road in Central Phoenix for dinner.
The place is just a half-block or so north of Indian School, behind the Nibblers catering business and Luke’s Italian Beef (which, for those of you keeping tabs on Phoenix restaurant trivia, was once a Pioneer chicken). I pulled into the parking lot and, like the building, it was still stuck in the 1970s, with faded parking lines and plenty of potholes. I figured this was all gravy anyway since what was on the inside is what would count. I dreamed of a quiet, romantic dinner with J. and some good food.
We walked into the restaurant and my entire world went upside down.
It wasn’t that I was disappointed. Not at all. I simply didn’t expect to be in one of Phoenix’s hippest dining spot. The place was jumping with a soft frenetic energy. The place was awash in candlelight and abstract art with plenty of polished metal surfaces and a few throw pillows tossed in for good measure. The crowd was an eclectic mix of people from across the spectrum. We were greeted by a friendly host who led us to a two-top table with split seating. J. took the booth section and I took the chair. We were handed menus and told our server would be with us shortly.
Sure enough, we didn’t wait more than a minute or two before our server arrived sporting ice water and making plenty of suggestions about what we should order. J. initiated the ordering with a Mojito ($10.00) and I went for the Iced Tea ($2.00). Our server went to get our drinks and we spent a good amount of time going over the menu. There were several choices that we both were drawn to. Having made up our minds, we waited for our drinks.
Our server returned with my Iced Tea and J.’s Mojito. The Mojito was in a squat, glass tumbler and was trimmed with a bar straw, lemon wedge and mint leaves. J. tried the drink and there was a flash of a confused look on J.’s face as though there was some thought being put into how to describe the drink. “Try this,” J. said, pushing the drink toward me. I took a sip and I am sure had that puzzled look on my face. It wasn’t bad, but it was an odd mix for a mojito. I think the problem was that the proportions were way off and the rum was so dominant, I couldn’t taste the bitterness of the citrus or the sweetness of the sugar and I barely tasted the mint. It tasted like a straight shot of rum. The rum was very good, but it was the only flavor I could discern. J. said the drink was “okay” but I could tell that was a bit of a ruse.
Our server had stepped away to get us more water and we placed our order up his return. We decided to start with the Shrimp and Goat Cheese Melt ($9.00). J. adores lamb and went with the Domestic Lamb Shank ($26.00). I decided to try the Center Cut Pork Chop ($19.00). Our waiter informed us that the house salad came with our entrees.
We chatted for about 10 minutes before our appetizer arrived. The Shrimp and Goat Cheese Melt was a large plate of toasted pita chips and slices of French bread that surrounded a small bowl of shrimp covered in goat cheese that had been melted under a broiler. This had been topped with a spiral of lemon zest. We each grabbed a pita chip, spooned on some of the dip, and took a bit. It was outstanding. The shrimp were fresh and had not been overcooked, nor were they rubbery. The goat cheese was bubbling hot and very creamy. Combined with the shrimp, the duo was a bit hit with both of us. I did find that the pita chips were a better accompaniment with the dip than the French bread, but I think that was due to the contrasting textures. J. loved every bit of the melt and we were scraping the bowl with a spoon and the bread slices to make sure we got every molecule.
As we waited for our entrees, I told J. that I was surprised at how well the noise level was contained because of the hard, metallic surfaces that could have easily amplified the sound. The restaurant was packed, but we were still able to carry on a conversation with out raising our voices or straining to be heard.
After our appetizer plates were cleared, a member of the staff appeared at our table with a cart which contained the ingredients for our House salads. He listed the items that would be tossed with the salad: orange segments, dried cranberries, toasted pecans, and chunks of Gorgonzola cheese. Pile them on, we stated. So, into a large bowl, the server mixed various greens with the items he listed off, plus a good dose of a citrus vinaigrette. He scrapped the bowl clean as he divided the salad on two plates. J. and I took a bite and we were very happy. It was a fantastic salad. Fresh, fragrant, flavorful and the dressing was superb. I could have easily made a meal of the salad if I had had another serving or two. Or three. J. raved about the salad and we both enjoyed the fact that we could have eliminated some of the add ons or even asked for more if we wished.
We had a short wait between the salads and our entrees arriving at the table. When J.’s Domestic Lamb Shank arrived, I was curious about the preparation. The shank had been wrapped in several grape leaves and cooked in a tomato sauce. I could smell the lamb and also the tomato sauce. It was quite aromatic. Next to the lamb was a serving of fusilli that had been tossed in a cream sauce with goat cheese, sun dried tomatoes and bits of red pepper. J. was thoroughly enjoying the dish. The lamb was fork tender and had a great Mediterranean flair due to the grape leaves. J. loved the tomato sauce noting that it had been finished with a bit of red wine. The fusilli was very good and flavorful from the sauce. J. was thrilled with the selection and didn’t miss a morsel on the shank.
My Center Cut Pork Chop had been coated in Panko and sauteed until golden brown. The coating still had an audible crunch to it when I took my first bite. I loved the crispiness of the Panko and the pork had a citrus highlight that was very unexpected, but very good. The pork was tender and moist and made a good impression. I was a bit disappointed at the serving size of the smashed potatoes that was served with the chop. They were creamy and delicious, but there was a scant 2-3 ounces of them on the plate. The steamed squash was also good, but paled in comparison to the potatoes. The highlight of the dish, however, was the cranberry orange chutney that was drizzled over the chop. It was decadent and highlighted the flavor of the pork. I would order this dish again, but would ask they hold the veggies and give me double potatoes.
We all but licked our plates clean before being approached by our server who inquired about dessert. We both were full, so we decided to split the Chocolate Bread Pudding ($8.00). Our server said he would return shortly.
Unfortunately, “shortly” would be a relative term because it seemed like we waited an inordinate amount of time for bread pudding. I am not sure what cause the delay - nor was any explanation given - but it was something that seemed so out of place for the excellent service we had encountered up to that span of time.
When our dessert arrived, I thought that maybe the bread pudding had been made up fresh and that was the cause of the delay. In any event, we dove in and indulged ourselves in the chocolaty creation. The pudding was firm, but moist and rich with chocolate. The slices of bananas and strawberries did a great job of cutting the richness of not only the pudding, but also chocolate sauce. J. and I thought this was a winning dessert all the way around.
We requested our check and the total bill was $79.99 including tax. For what we got, we thought this was an outstanding value. Service was quite good, except for the dessert issue, but in aggregate, we were both pleased with our server who was friendly, engaging and had a wry sense of humor.
As we headed outside, we returned to the real world and the 70s exterior of a building that is clearly hiding a gem inside. Despite my desire for a quite, romantic restaurant, I wasn’t disappointed in Zest (even with the mojito and dessert wait). I would go back in a heartbeat, if only to be in the middle of a great vibe.
I guess that old adage about books and judging and covers still lives on.
Zest Spirited Dining
4117 North 16th Street
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Dress: Resort casual on up.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday - 5 PM to 9 PM; Friday and Saturday - 5 PM to 10 PM
Notes: Plenty of parking. Just north of Indian School Road.
Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com