Zuni

April 17, 2007 | By | COMMENTS

Don’t go to Zuni. Do go to Zuni. It’s overrated. It’s underrated. It’s passed its prime. It’s a perennial. It’s a legend. You have to eat there.

Welcome to the Zuni Cafe, the subject of much debate in the San Francisco dining scene:

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I’ve known about Zuni for a very long time. I’ve had the Zuni cookbook for a very long time. One of the biggest reasons I wanted to come to San Francisco was to eat at Zuni. And on Sunday night, right after my meet-up, Raife joined Sam, Fred and I for dinner at this relatively new, but no less significant, San Francisco institution.

Right away I got a warm fuzzy feeling inside. The hostess was sweet and took our coats. The giant glass wall makes the restaurant feel like it’s part of the street. The kitchen has mystery and excitement. Raife and I ordered Meyer Lemon Drops, Sam had a champagne cocktail and I don’t think Fred had anything:

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I had a good feeling about this night–I was read to enjoy it. Then the hostess led us to our table upstairs. And through a hallway. And over to the right. Suddenly, we weren’t in Zuni anymore: we were in an art gallery.

(Fatemeh said to me tonight: “I hate eating upstairs at Zuni. I always ask to eat downstairs—I’d even rather eat at the bar.”)

We had a very helpful waitress and the menus were exciting and nicely printed, but I’m just going to say it right here in paragraph seven: I was disappointed with my meal at Zuni.

My appetizer, which came highly recommended by the waitress, was: “Shaved Terra Firma Farm purple asparagus with pistachios, aged Tuscan pecorino, and coriander vinaigrette.”

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I dunno. The raw purple asparagus was a bit too woody; the other components kind of just sat there. It didn’t come together into a sublime whole.

Raife ordered the polenta, but there was a dark shadow lurking over the meal (ha ha ha–look at the pic):

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What was this dark shadow? Was Zuni struggling against its reputation?

My entree was the well-prepared but lackluster Guinea hen breast saltimbocca with buttermilk-mashed potatoes and baby leeks:

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The breast was surprisingly moist for a breast, but will I wake up in a cold sweat several weeks from now screaming because I wont be able to get this again? No. In fact, I’ll probably forget I ate it by next week.

But Sam really loved the meal. Here she is with Raife and Fred looking happy and silently judging me for not loving it too:

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She had ricotta gnocchi which she marveled over. Fred loved Raife’s tuna. I liked Fred’s hanger steak.

The desserts, though, were nice:

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That’s a grapefruit granita, a chocolate cake, and–the best–a strawberry trifle.

“I’m British,” Sam told the waitress, “and I’ve had hundreds of trifles my whole life and that’s the best I’ve ever had.”

It was true. The custard was rich and velvety; the strawberries were fresh and tart. I bet it’s in the Zuni cookbook. I bet you can make it and save yourself a trip. I bet you’ll serve yourself a bigger portion (a fact the waitress bemoaned to us: “I think the serving is too small.”)

Did you ever have a hero in high school? Someone you really admired and then you found out he was an alcoholic child molester who beat his wife? Ok, so this isn’t exactly like that. There’s pleasure in discovering truth about a place; in making up your own mind.

I enjoyed my Zuni experience. I’m so glad I ate there. I thought the food was perfectly fine; it just wasn’t memorable or astonishing or new, at least to me. But maybe that’s not the point. The point is that it’s good.

Categories: California, Restaurant Reviews, San Francisco

  • samanamantha

    this might be a trifle belayed, but go to farralon. the best places in sf are not always those that have garnered the highest praise. farralon is well known for its atributes as a pre-theater venue, but it’s damn good even for those who aren’t enjoying a play later. maybe you’ve been led astray by the hype of zuni. sometimes you just have to decide for yourself what places are the best cuisine. your sf hosts need to show you what food in the city is really like, because by your posts thus far, SF is being sold short! it’s unfair!

  • http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/ sam

    That’s the funniest thing I have EVER heard:

    “Raife and I ordered Meyer Lemon Drops, Sam had a champagne cocktail and I DON’T THINK FRED HAD ANYTHING:”

    I guess you didn’t notice the full tumbler of whisky, then? And I was drinking straight champers. No cocktail there.

    I did feel a bit sorry for Adam – he did seem to have the bum choices on the menu. He was eating raw asparagus whilst I was tucking in to a plate of very tasty lamb sausage with the tenderest of beans.

    We wouldn’t let him have the chicken salad cos we couldnt wait an hour plus – two people out of four with bum choices would have been a shame.

    Instead, Adam was eating chicken and mash (whoever orders chicken in a restaurant anyway???) whilst Raife’s yellow fin tuna was quite exquisite, Fred’s steak, was buttery, rich and far more sophisticated than the hen breast. It was like a kid’s meal versus a grown-up one.

    My ricotta gnocchi were fine. Delicate. Perhaps I should really have ordered something with more robust flavours like Fred’s steak or Raife’s fish.

    Nothing to complain about the trifle.Nothing at all.

    Zuni has misses on its menu. like any other restaurant. But it also has a lot of hits. I am just sorry that your stars didn’t align on that day to match you up with the things it does great.

    Also you are right about the over-hype – it doesn’t have too much of a chance against that. I am pretty sure if you came to live here and went to Zuni regularly, you might end up becoming quite fond of it in the end.

    PS – I am not going to take any blame for you not enjoying it, btw, cos it was your idea in the first place ;)

  • Sam

    I regrettably have to disagree with samanamantha – I looked forward to eating at farallon and was sorely disappointed. Like I said before, I loved the decor – that you’re “underwater” – but the food was meh at best and boring at worst.

    Although perhaps I had an experience like yours at Zuni. That anticipation leads to disappointment because nothing could match your anticipation.

    And regarding your high school hero thing, it did sort of happen to me once:

    http://mog.com/SamTheButcher/blog_post/11989

    It’s a bummer, for sure.

  • flip

    NEVER EVER EVER stand between a guy and his Zuni roast chicken w/bread salad. I hope Adam’ll forgive you.

  • http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/ sam

    I was just protecting the interests of Raife. Raife wanted tuna but Adam was trying to bully him in to sharing chicken salad.

    Plus it was late on a school night and Fred and I would have fallen asleep. We are old codgers, not young whipper-snappers like Adam.

  • Judy

    I agree with Sam..Farallon, beautiful decor, food only so so…go because you should see the decor, but have a drink and then go elsewhere for food–Slanted Door perhaps?

  • http://floatingnib.blogspot.com/ benas

    I will be seeing and tasting San Fran for my first time this week… we’re flying out tomorrow! I’ll consider your experiences when choosing where to eat… thanks for being the guinea pig! :)

  • http://www.lenndevours.com Lenn

    Nena and I enjoyed Zuni when we went there based on Fatemeh’s and Alder’s reco…but I didn’t think it was earth shattering.

    We did have a less than ideal table upstairs that was cramped. The food was well prepared and obviously fresh, but I wasn’t blown away. But as Sam says above, I think if I lived in the Bay Area, it would be come a staple..there is something to be said for consistent above average over being ‘wowed’ on occasion after all.

    We certainly had a much better time than we did at Rubicon, where we had awful service, a horrific table and were treated like we didn’t belong.

    Sam, the next time we’re in town, I PROMISE that we’ll meet up. Sorry it didn’t work out last summer. But, I’m already angling for a trip to the same conference in 2008!

  • http://www.foodmusings.com Catherine

    I am sad you didn’t love it. So sad. I have never eaten at Zuni with any expectations — my first dinner there was before I knew anything at all about food or restaurants (and it was a getting-back-together meal, which I guess meant it was going to be good no matter what). But since then we have had countless meals there, and every one a winner. I have never eaten anything that wasn’t really good. However, it’s not innovative. It’s very simple, and I think sometimes simple things, especially if the way they’re cooked doesn’t suit you, can be a let down on a big night out.

  • Lauren

    This is about the eggs benedict movie… I LOVED IT!!! It was hysterical and really REALLY well done. Major props to you and Craig (Craig, you really are talented with this whole film thing, aren’t you?)! Thank for posting that video. I can’t wait to view the rest.

  • http://www.mattbites.com matt

    You know, if I were to separate and remove myself from my love of Zuni Cafe and see it through the eyes of a first-timer I’d have to admit there is nothing quite there to knock one’s socks off. It’s good in a humble quiet kind of way, far from being glitzy and impressive from first glance.

    However, I’ve had a 10+ year love affair with this restaurant and it’s like an old friend…certainly not the new kid in town but always nice to hang out with when you want solid, good, familiar food.

    Sam said it best! “I am pretty sure if you came to live here and went to Zuni regularly, you might end up becoming quite fond of it in the end.”

    Exactly!

  • http://ghost-light.blogspot.com/ Elizabeth

    I think before I laid down big bucks a Farralon, I’d try smaller, neighborhood type restuarants like Pomelo for example.

    http://www.pomelosf.com/

    I love Zuni, but I recognize that the food is uneven and I love the Zuni cookbook even though I haven’t made it past the roasted potatoes (God are they amazing!).

  • brenda

    Zuni is best experienced with a view of the kitchen action in the afternoon for late lunch. Part of the pleasure is watching them prepare. Also, some of the menu favorites like burgers, oysters, salads, are better daytime fare. Loyal readers that might visit San Francisco soon, should still give it a try, although at lunch on a rainy afternoon. Cheers!

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