The August issue of Saveur magazine featured the Zuni Cafe and its owner, Judy Rodgers. Rightfully so as the restaurant is a successful crystallization of the Bay Area food zeitgeist...casual, fresh, organic, politically correct. Exciting? No. Delicious? Yes.
I feel shame that I lived here for two years without indulging in Zuni's pleasures, particularly since I am a big fan of the cookbook. But I finally had a good excuse to go when a foodie friend from New York paid a visit last week.
My friend insisted on starting with a signature dish, the Zuni Caesar Salad. (I avoid this salad in restaurants in recent years because typically it is just plain bad). This was an excellent version, in fact, much like the one I make at home based on Julia Child's recipe. The romaine leaves are left whole, the anchovies are incorporated into the dressing in such a way that they are distinct yet subtle. The croutons are freshly made. Delicious. But not unique.
Next, I ordered a few oysters from the seafood bar. I requested small oysters. They were fabulous: a Humboldt Kunomoto, a Marin Miyagi, and a Pacific Orchard from BC served with a delicate champagne mignonette. My friend insisted I taste an eastern Malpeque...it was good but didn't have the Pacific brine that I adore. I want to taste the sea in my mouth. Why bother otherwise?
Then I couldn't resist the "House-cured Anchovies". I think 95% of the American population despises anchovies. Caesar's Salad only became popular when the anchovy element disappeared. I enjoy pizza with anchovies on the rare occassions when I have a companion who can tolerate it.
The Zuni Cafe anchovies should change the mind of anchovy phobes. They are not salty, not oily, not fishy. They are served with thin shards of top quality Parmigiano-Reggiano, and paper thin slices of celery. A few nicoise olives are tossed about the plate. Simple but perfect. I have to give credit for the idea of combining anchovies and celery...a surprising but brilliant combination.
For the main dish of our lunch we ordered one of the brick oven pizzas...described as pizza with parmesan, mozzarella, pork sausage, red onions and radicchio. When it was served I was surprised to see it was a white pizza, no sauce at all. It didn't need sauce. The crust was almost paper thin and crisp with well charred areas. The toppings took second stage to the delicious crust.
Zuni's signature dish is a roast chicken with bread salad for two which takes 40 minutes to cook to order. I saw it served to a table near me. Looked good. But I make roast chicken so often at home that I have no interest in eating it out.
In summary, the Zuni Cafe certainly isn't breaking any new culinary ground, but it's an excellent choice for good basic food made from top-notch ingredients. I just wish the cookbook had the pizza crust recipe!