Zuni Café, in its corner space on Market and Rose, looks like a luminous slice of glass pie. Even from the outside of the building, one can’t help noticing its beautiful wall of twinkling bottles lining the well-stocked bar. Although there is nothing specifically European about the restaurant, Zuni café always makes me feel like I am on vacation in Paris. There is just something about the stylish brick interior, white cloth-clad tables, and general vibe of the place that makes it appealing. The bottom floor of the café is largely occupied by a shining zinc bar, behind which all the life of the city can be observed through the glass wall. The tables downstairs are closer together and more casual than the ones upstairs, and are left available for customers without reservations. The upstairs space is split into multiple rooms with few tables in each, so no matter where you sit the feel is intimate. The wait staff is exceptionally polished and professional, and there is a prevailing sense of comfort in both the food and the service.
Zuni café was opened in 1979 by Billy West, and initially served mostly Mexican and Southwestern fare until current Chef and co-owner Judy Rodgers came on board in 1987. Today Rodgers co-owns Zuni with Gilbert Pilgram, who spent 20 years working at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley. The restaurant has come a long way from being the place it once was, while always maintaining its welcoming atmosphere. Rodgers’ culinary interests lie primarily in French and Italian cuisine, although she says she is as much influenced by mothers, grandmothers, and aunts as she is by famous chefs and cookbooks. Her focus is on sourcing the best produce, not coming up with ingenious ways to mask its taste. Rodgers’ philosophy is very much reflected in the comforting and familiar food served at Zuni, where the idea is simply to serve delicious food anyone would want to eat.
For starters we had the House Cured Anchovies with celery, parmesan cheese, and Coquillo olives. The anchovies came out moist and glistening, having none of the saltiness of canned anchovies. Sheets of parmesan sprinkled with black pepper and drizzled with olive oil accompanied them, along with translucent quarter-sized light green shavings of celery and compact black olives. Every bite layered the savory taste of anchovies with the nutty tang of parmesan, and finished with the light freshness of celery. It was a brilliant blend.
Next was the Smoky Roasted Eggplant Caviar with mint, Mount Vikos feta, and croutons. The eggplant’s silky texture was a welcome contrast to its exotic smoky flavor. The earthy puree was brightened by the freshness of mint and the tang of feta, and tasted delightful both on its own and spread over the long thin croutons accompanying it.
We couldn’t resist also ordering the Zuni Caesar Salad, which is a true Café classic. It is perhaps the only item left from the original menu, and components of the recipe have changed. Crisp and glossy romaine leaves are generously drizzled with classic Caesar dressing, giving just the right amount of zing from its anchovy and egg base. The salad is bedecked with fresh black pepper and thick crunchy, expertly seasoned croutons; it is then finished off with long, fraying shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. this is easily one of the best Caesar salads I’ve ever had.
To begin the entrée portion of the meal, we ordered the Bellwether Farms Ricotta Gnocchi with little carrots and nettles. This uncomplicated recipe illustrates Zuni’s message: simple food can be delicious. The gnocchi are made with nothing more and nothing less than the highest quality ricotta cheese, pushed through a sieve to ensure a smooth and even texture, then mixed with flour, eggs, and a little parmesan. They are then boiled and served with butter. The taste is so elegant one might never guess the dish is the result of four of the simplest straight-from-the-pantry ingredients. Pardon the cliché, but the gnocchi really do melt in your mouth. The fresh baby carrots and nettles make a nice base for the otherwise airy dish, and give’s something to chew on. No table should go without trying this dish.
Our first meat entree was the Grimaud Farm Duck Confit with long-cooked beans, onions and chanterelle mushroom relish. This was the ideal comfort food dish for a foggy San Francisco evening. The duck had a delectably caramelized crispy skin and tender, juicy interior meat that was sweet and richly flavorful. The sweetness carried over to the onion and bean relish, which got a deeply earthy contrast from the chanterelles.
I feel confident in saying Pinot Noir is a natural accompaniment to duck. The varietal’s juicy taste, with its hints of cherry and blackberry, pairs nicely with sweet and succulent duck meat. The glass of 2007 Hirsch Vineyards Pinot Noir we drank, which the winery created especially for Zuni, was no exception.
Our second meat entrée was the Babe Amarel Ranch Beef Filet rolled in black pepper and roasted rare with Nicola potatoes stuffed with aioli, Early Girl tomatoes and arugula salad. The rare-cooked meat tasted and cut like butter, and had a rich and complex flavor one seldom tastes in meat unless it is of the highest quality. Savoring the beef made me want to write a letter to Babe Amarel and personally thank him… and perhaps buy a few of his steaks to keep in my own fridge. This dish had everything: there was the sweet tang of Early Girl tomatoes mixed with the peppery arugula, and the rich comfort of potatoes stuffed with homemade aioli. But, of course, the crown jewel of the plate and probably the entire meal was the meat itself. It needed nothing accompanying it but a fork and a hungry mouth, and the sides only made it better.
For dessert we ordered the Moroccan Jewels (dates Stuffed with mascarpone, pomegranate seeds, pistachios and mandarins) and the Zinfandel Grape Granita. Both dishes were fairly light considering the incredibly rich dinner we had just devoured. The dates, like the eggplant caviar, were an example of the fact that Rodgers’ influences are not solely French and Italian, but sometimes take inspiration from Greece and other Mediterranean countries. The dates had so many bursts of flavor that it was hard to imagine they all fit into one small plate. The sweet density of the dates themselves paired beautifully with the lightness of both texture and taste of the mascarpone and the pomegranate seeds. The pistachios and mandarins were indeed like little emeralds and rubies that studded the dessert, infusing it with both color and flavor. The Granita was like the gnocchi: simple and delicious. Its coolness of temperature and taste was a welcome finish to an otherwise warm and indulgent meal. Similarly, the bright fresh flavor of the grapes had all the feeling of a balmy summer night, and needed nothing as additive.
Zuni café epitomizes San Francisco. It is casual and unrestrained, yet uncompromising in its quality. One comes to Zuni assured of having a delicious meal in a comfortable atmosphere, surrounded by a diverse group of patrons. The food is comforting, approachable, and utterly delectable; and there is no doubt that everything coming from the kitchen is a source of pride and a labor of love.