Zuni (SF) – Institutional Dining
Zuni has been an institution in San Francisco dining for over 20 years. The angled architecture harkens back to its glory days in the 70s when its cuisine was revolutionary in America – fresh, local ingredients cooked perfectly. But what happens when every other restaurant in the area has copied your formula and perfected it? Do the other restaurants render the original irrelevant? Or does Zuni still stand above its peers?
I’ve lived in San Francisco, the city proper, for 8 years and yet I’ve never made it to Zuni. I’ve tried a few times but i’m not the luckiest when it comes to reservations – 5:30 or 10:30 was the guaranteed response of a Zuni call. Many friends, whose judgement I can trust in eating, have always raved about how great the food was; the briny oysters, the creamy polenta, the ridiculous chicken, and the decadent bread salad that accompanies it. Pure ingredients and exceptional execution – the signature of a restaurant that defines its city – cool and casual. And yet I hadn’t been.
After a haircut, several dodged rain showers, and a walk across town; I met my friend and his wife for their last meal in SF. She wanted the chicken; he wanted everything. We settled for something in between.
Anchovies marinated in olive oil w/ parmesan cheese
It’s hard to go wrong w/ anchovies or sardines in the Bay Area at an ingredients-first restaurant. Marinated or grilled, they are usually impressive. But not on this day – merely adequate, nothing more than sustenance, mushy, and lacking any vibrant flavor.
A ceasar salad is a ceasar salad so i won’t hold this one against them.
Hamburger (medium rare)
Some rave about the hamburger; others proclaim it too mushy. Ordered it w/ some trepidation (wasn’t in the mood for fish), it came out fancy, but it sure had flavor. It was mushier than ideal, but it had a deep beef flavor. Not bad – I’d order it again for lunch.
Sardines & anchovies – you can’t go wrong – unless it’s Zuni. The pizza was a mess and, in retrospect, it should have been returned. It was completely soggy in the middle, the oils having seeped through the thin crust. We noticed other pizzas looked better – was it the sardines? Or the cook?
And then there’s the chicken – the one dish that defines the restaurant. It has been a revelation for many – most people have not had a good chicken. However, where others see revelation, I see a $40 charge for something you can do yourself for $10 at home. Go to the Ferry Building farmer’s market very early on Saturday morning, buy a Hoffman chicken, sea salt the outside the night before, stuff some herbs inside, maybe a lemon or orange, and don’t overcook. You will have a chicken that is just as juicy and flavorful, perhaps moreso, with a very crispy skin.
Espresso granita w/ whip cream
Overall, i won’t be rushing to go back and I’m definitely not fighting w/ them over reservations. The two pillars of the restaurant failed it on this Saturday afternoon – the ingredients were not as pristine as i expected, the execution not as consistent as i’d hoped.
Zuni may just be a factory at this point in time – people will flock it every night for a good meal. There are other restaurants improving upon their formula – smaller, more intimate restaurants that certainly pay homage to Zuni. If i’m invited to Zuni w/ someone who already has a reservation, i’ll give it another shot; til then, I’ll go to the upstarts.