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Sunday, June 13, 2004

A lovely lazy Sunday lunch at Zuni Cafe: My favorite San Francisco part 1

zunidehorsA number of people noticed that I haven't written much about restaurants in my own city, San Francisco. There have even been some confusion about where I, in fact, live. I looked through my recent blogs and wondered a bit myself. I suppose I don't see eating in my own city as much of an event, I am hence far less inclined to make an effort of taking the photos and documenting the meals.

When I'm in my own town, I often eat at “simple” places whose cooking celebrate the California bounty that we here are so privilege to enjoy, Zuni and Delfina being two wonderful examples. I go to the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market every Saturday morning to stock my pantry with superlative fruits and vegetables, my week's cheese supply from the fabulous Cow Girl Creamery, breads from Delle Frattoria--the most perfect foil for butter and confitures, Marshall Farm's honey for my organic Strauss Yogurt, among other things. I also eat a lot at ethnic places, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Chinese, etc. I go to Naka-san's Kiss when I want a simple and restorative meal of impeccable sushi and other superb Japanese dishes.

I have written about some of these places, but I promise to do more from now on. It will be so much fun to share my favorite parts of San Francisco with you all.

In fact, coincidentally, I've been having something of a Zuni and Delfina "resurrection", eating at least four times at each of those places in the last month alone. I've actually just had the most perfectly lazy Sunday lunch at Zuni today.

It was a lunch date with my dear friends Christine and Robert, whom I had not seen in far too long. Christine and I have known each other for a long time. We have the same academic lineage, work in the same industry, and cemented our friendship some years ago sharing a room for a week at an academic drunk fest, err, conference in Holland.

We decided on Zuni because Christine and Robert, who live in a fabulous Eichler house in San Jose, would like come up and spend a Sunday in the city with me. I could not think of anything more perfect than going to lunch at Zuni, sitting in the airy and sun-drenched room, having a lovely conversation while enjoying good wine and simple yet marvelous food.

061304ZuniBarSo that's exactly what we did today. The room at Zuni was as wonderful as always. We were seated at a table on the mezzanine, overlooking the beautiful zinc-top bar area. The bar at Zuni can be quite a scene at night, beautiful people, chic-ly attired, sipping tall glasses of Zuni's famous balsamic bloody mary, trying not to let the obligatory giant celery stick poke them in the eye or nose while exchanging secret glances with other beautiful people about the room. The same area at lunch, on the other hand, is much less stressful, there were a few couples and young families waiting for their tables and tentative tourists on an homage to a San Francisco institution.

The menu, as always, is an homage, in and of itself, to the seasonal and wonderful bounty we are so privilege to enjoy here in California. Anchovies from Monterey, Rainier Cherries from the local organic Twin Girls' farm, wild King Salmon from the Sacramento river, Cow Girl Creamery and Bellweather cheeses. There were also dishes featuring wild nettles, Bing cherries and Red Cloud apricots, all of which are in season at the moment.

061304breadbutterI adore Zuni's philosophy. Chef Judy Rodgers, who is ever so fortunate to have spent her formative cooking years at culinary Valhalla like chez Troisgros in Roanne and Chez Panisse, here Berkeley, does not betray her culinary heritage. Her primary focus is clearly placed in the sourcing of local, seasonal, and sustainable products, and in cooking them with skillful yet gentle hands, letting the ingredients shine, each in its own distinctly fabulous light. Her well-cultivated palate is also evident in the pairing of interesting flavors, anchovies, parmesan, and celeries, prosciutto with green almonds, strong saucisson sec with Fuyu persimmons, to name but a few.

061304anchoviesToday's lunch is, again, a quintessential Zuni meal. To start, we shared house-cured anchovies, an heirloom lettuce salad, and prosciutto with bing cherries. The anchovy dish is one of my parennial favorite starters here. The anchovies are from Monterey, cured in house and served simply with parmesan, celeries, niçoise olives. They were fresh, briny, and a perfect combination of textures and flavors.

061304saladThe salad today was heirloom butter lettuce, with beautifully purple freckles throughout, served with sweet ruby red grapefruits, ample chunks of Mt.Viko feta cheese, in a light champagne and honey vinaigrette. The salad was great, I love the vinaigrette and the lettuce and grapefruit slices, though I found the feta cheese so benign it could have almost been fromage blanc. The light cheese went quite well with the salad, but as it was Feta, I expected it to be proper feta, packing a little punch of pungency that was entirely missing from the cheese used here.

061304proscuittocherriesThe third starter, Prociutto from Parma with local Bing cherries, fennels and green almonds, was simply fantastic. The prosciutto was a perfect texture, not wet and falling apart like most prociutto one gets in the US, and was paired perfectly well with fennels, green almonds, and Bing cherries that have been roasted in Balsamic vinaigrette to further concentrate the natural flavors of the cherries. At first the idea of roasting perfectly good Bing cherries sounded a bit like gilding the lilies, but I must admit that it worked so well, the cherries were so marvelously packed with flavors and turned into the most sublimely soft texture. They were all kinds of wonderful.

061304PizzaFor the main course, Christine decided on the Araucana eggs, scrambled with sweet corn and Carmody cheese. I chose the King Salmon, cooked on Zuni's famous Mesquite grill, and served with Bintje potato, cucumber, arugula tossed in coriander vinaigrette and a dollop of crème fraîche. Our dear Robert opted for a pizza from the wood oven, topped with a tantalizing mix of mozzarella, fresh asiago cheese, pancetta, black pepper and wild nettle.

061304aracaunaeggsChristine's Araucana scrambled eggs was superb. I so adore scrambled eggs, and this one was perfectly scrambled to the creamiest and softest texture, perfectly seasoned with chives, with a surprising and explosive sweetness from the fresh corn punctuating each bite. I had to physically restrain myself from stealing her entire plate.

061304KingSalmonLuckily, for Christine that is, my own plate, a mesquite roasted King Salmon from the Sacramento River was also wonderful. The salmon was impeccably fresh and cooked only medium rare to preserve the natural sweetness. I love the crunchy cucumber ribbons, the bitter arugula, and the fabulously buttery potato. I didn't taste much of the coriander in the vinaigrette (though I definitely saw a few) but that may have been a good thing(?).

061304HuetVouvrayWith our food, we enjoyed a nice bottle of Vouvray Sec, a 2001 Huet's Le Mont, a dry white from the Loire Valley. It went very well with the meal, with ample acidity to support the food, and a lovely and unmistakable nose of apple.

061304CheeseandberriesI never miss desserts at Zuni. I often eat far too much to fit a cheese course between the meal and the desserts though, but not today. The olallieberries with Bellweather Farm fromage blanc sounded so tempting that we decided to have it as a palate cleanser before our proper desserts. Olallieberries (pronounced oh-la-la berries!) are grown mainly on the West Coast of the US, they are a cross between Youngberry and Loganberry, and look quite similar to blackberries, though much sweeter than regular blackberries. The combination of fromage blanc and the olallieberries was quite lovely, the sweetness from the berries complimented very well the subtle and creamy taste of the cheese.

061304FrangipanCherryTartFor dessert, there is always a type of tart on the menu at Zuni, and I could never bring myself to miss any of them. The pâtes sablés used here is so incredibly short and tasty, it's my absolute favorite in the city. Today's tart was frangipane with Bing cherries. Frangipane is a classic French almond-base tart filling. Here the frangipane was paired with sweet Bing cherries which are at the height of the season. Vanilla ice cream is always served with the tarts here. Unfortunately, the vanilla ice cream here is practically the only thing that I actively dislike at Zuni. I find the ice cream far too sweet and eggy, and barely tasting of vanilla, though the little black specks are visible throughout. Why this is so is such a mystery to me, my palate agrees with most things at Zuni except this one.

061304RenierCherries061304ApricotSorbetThe other two desserts were a delightful bowl of Rainier cherries from Twin Girls' farm, and a superb Red Cloud apricot sorbet. No, I wasn't mistaken, I really meant to say a simple bowl of cherries. This is where Chez Panisse's influence is evident here. Zuni has the audacity, like Chez Panisse before her, to serve simply the unadorned fruits, perfectly ripe and at the height of the season. It's true that I could get this at the Saturday farmer's market at the Ferry Plaza, but my friends do not go there often, so we were perfectly happy to indulge on a bowl of superlative cherries, even for $5.

We ended the meal with somewhat disappointing espresso. The crema was missing in action a bit, but by then we were so happily satiated that we didn't even bother to complain.

This was the way to savor Zuni, a lovely and lazy Sunday lunch, on a warm and sunny day, enjoying delightful conversations with dear friends. Life is simple.

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