When I was a nerd in high school (“What? YOU were a NERD in high school? That’s SHOCKING!”) my brother and I played many CD-ROMs. “Under A Killing Moon,” “The 7th Guest,” and, my personal favorite, “Return to Zork.”
This post has nothing to do with that except the title is an homage to that most peculiar video game, with creepy animations and a most memorable soundtrack. Instead, this post is about my return to one of San Francisco’s most beloved restaurants, a restaurant that I was dying to try my first time visiting here as an adult only to leave disappointed (see here). Was I disappointed this time around?
The answer: no, not at all. And what’s funny is that the restaurant hasn’t changed at all, the food hasn’t changed at all, what’s changed is me.
Zuni doesn’t scream for attention the way a lot of restaurants do. It just makes simple, straightforward food in the most honest way possible. So if there’s chicken stock in your polenta, for example? They make that stock themselves. They do it the right way.
Take the cocktail I started with (my dinner date, by the way, was the incomparable Michael Procopio) an Aperol cocktail that Michael ordered too.
Shaken aggressively with ice, and mixed with the freshest pink grapefruit juice, this cocktail was as bracing as a slap across the face. And there were no pyrotechnics, no dry ice, no muddled this or infused that. Just very good ingredients paired properly.
The same is true for this first course of anchovies, Parmesan, celery, and olives.
Each element perfect in its own way: house-cured anchovies, slivers of high quality Parmesan, properly sliced celery and peppy little olives that, when combined, did cartwheels in the mouth.
We had to have the Zuni Caesar which did not disappoint:
It was my entree, though, that really opened my eyes to Zuni’s superiority as a restaurant.
That’s a leg of lamb but look how it’s presented. On the plate there’s also merguez (lamb sausage), caramelized turnips with the greens still attached, caramelized carrots and quince, some couscous and then, spooned on top, a salsa verde made with pomegranate seeds. It’s a dish that you can only really appreciate if you realize how much work went into creating it. All of those elements were made with love; their presentation on the plate is nothing short of artistic. And the taste wasn’t a hammer-stroke of salty, fatty overabundance; but rather a gentle hug with lovely grace notes.
Michael had the ricotta gnocchi:
Let’s call that what it is: cheese cloaked in butter. Of course, it tasted like a romp through heaven, each gnocchi as ethereal as a cloud.
For dessert, there was the honey-walnut semi-fredo with figs:
Those figs on a plate (a San Francisco cliche) really sang out against the chilled dessert, united, as it was, with honey drizzled on top.
And the chocolate gateau was remarkable for its restraint, not at all sweet, just at the edge of bitter:
Most restaurant food comes to you in a way that’s obvious and abundantly clear: THIS. IS. RESTAURANT. FOOD. YOU. MUST. PAY. ATTENTION.
Zuni’s food asks you to come to it. It may not rise up and put on a show, but if you take it for what it is, you can learn something from it. It reminds me of an Aimee Mann lyric: “A monkey knows how you’ll react / creating want by holding back.” Zuni creates want by holding back and that’s what makes it such an enduring treasure of a restaurant.