Zuni Café, San Francisco

by Stevie on August 16, 2010

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We went with some out-of-town friends to Zuni Café the other day as a sort of special treat. K and V were visiting from Reno. They brought their darling two and a half year old son, Cooper with them. Hegui has been a long-time admirer of Zuni though we hadn’t been in a while. I made an early reservation on a Saturday and off we went.

welcome to Zuni

having fun at Zuni before even getting to the table

Zuni is a beautiful restaurant nestled on a peculiarly shaped corner of Market Street. From the entrance, I always imagine that we’re entering a large ocean liner that is gliding placidly across a calm sea as the building has such a sharp angle akin to the prow of a cruise ship. Inside there’s an expansive open bar with lots of windows facing the street. The restaurant is built on at least two levels. I say “at least” because the second floor has so many little raised and lowered sections with lots of small stairs connecting them together that you feel the building is much more intimate and simultaneously huge than you initially thought.

The restaurant is simply but stylishly fitted out with a gleaming brass bar, lots of contemporary and local art, white linens, sun filled windows and a cheery buzz from all of the delighted guests.

Burrata alla panna with cucumbers, tapenade and wild arugula

Zuni piccolo fritto: deep fried flounder, Yolo sweet onions and okra with tomatillo salsa

Zuni has an interesting history. I hadn’t realized that it started out as a Mexican inspired restaurant, for example. Though I did know that the owners had some connection to the legendary Chez Pannisse in Berkeley. These days it’s more French and Italian: generic international is what I’d call the style of food. But that doesn’t sound good, does it?

Nowadays, Zuni’s famous for its roasted chicken for two. That you have to order right when you sit down as they insist that it takes an hour to prepare. None of us had this on our recent visit. I did notice the table across form ours dining on this Zuni favorite.

Zuni Mt Eden Pinot Noir

We met our friends at the gleaming bar downstairs. Hegui had a glass of Quipé syrah-grenache-mourvedre while I tried the Sazerac cocktail. This refreshing, very adult drink was made of rye whisky with bitters and some kind of herbal flavorings. K didn’t like the taste at all so ended up sticking to a Chimay Red. V had a glass of the ZUNI Mount Eden Vineyards 2008 Pinot Noir. We ended up ordering a bottle of the pinot for the table. It was medium bodied, fruit forward, and delicate. I was charmed with the fact that the restaurant had their name right on the label of wine. That’s got to be a high recommendation from the management.

The service was attentive but not overbearing. I was mildly concerned about having a child in our party but it turns out that Zuni has a kids menu. Cooper loved the spaghetti in butter and his childish antics didn’t ruffle the staff at all. I don’t think that that would be the case everywhere.

The menu at Zuni changes frequently. The website says that they try to use organic and seasonal ingredients for their French and Italian inspired dishes. That evening we had a selection of appetizer and main dishes. I guiltily enjoyed the piccolo fritto: deep fried flounder with Yolo sweet onions and okra with tomatillo sauce. When can fried ever go wrong? Hegui tried the burrata alla panna with cucumbers, tapenade and wild arugula. The creamy cheese was delicious. We had the bowl of polenta with mascarpone, Zuni cesar salad and Hog Island manila clams with white wine, tomato, black limes, za’atar and harissa. That last was especially good. V had thegrilled Fort Bragg King salmon with eggplant, summer squash, Jimmy Nardello peppers and chervil salsa verde. The names for some of these dishes are a mouthful, aren’t they? Everything was good. We even enjoyed the bread that they brought to the table, thinking all along that it was from Tartine.

could this be Tartine bread!?!

Zuni cesar salad

Hog Island manila clams with white wine, tomato, black limes, za'atar and harissa

grilled Fort Bragg King salmon with eggplant, summer squash, Jimmy Nardello peppers and chervil salsa verde

Since we were having a good time, we splurged on dessert. We shared the Summer Lady peach tart with crème fraîche ice cream and the Gâteau Victoire with whipped cream and a glass each of Cynar and 2007 Muscat de Beaumes de Venise Domaine de Durban Rhône Valley. Yum!

Gateau Victoire with whipped cream

Summer Lady peach tart with creme fraiche ice cream

2007 Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and Cynar

Zuni is good. The atmosphere is excellent; it’s kid friendly; the service is attentive and the food is tasty. Hegui and I have been talking about our experience there for several days afterward. We enjoyed everything but we weren’t amazed. Why was that? I have the sense that Zuni was cutting edge when it opened but that it’s coasting a bit now on its past successes. Don’t get me wrong: I would definitely go here again. I just feel that Zuni lacks identity, somehow, let’s say compared to Delfina, Kokkari or Gary Danko. Hmm…

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