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:
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:
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.”
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):
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:
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:
She had ricotta gnocchi which she marveled over. Fred loved Raife’s tuna. I liked Fred’s hanger steak.
The desserts, though, were nice:
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.