Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Restaurant Review & Recipe: Zin American Bistro



Zin American Bistro is just down the street from Pomme Frite, and the two present an interesting contrast in approaches.

Where Pomme Frite represents an attempt to reproduce the atmosphere of a typical Franco-Belgian bistro, Zin American Bistro is clearly designed to provide an upscale dining experience.

Zin is decorated in an elegant, contemporary style, with walls that are covered with original works of art. The lighting is low, and provided by numerous mini-halogens scattered across the darkly painted ceiling. Everything about the restaurant feels carefully considered and chosen.

The first thing you notice when you're seated is the extensive wine list. Zin received a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 2008, and it shows. The wine list runs in the hundreds of wines, and each page of the list includes a wine-themed quote, many of which had me chuckling. I can't remember who said it, but I particularly liked the clergyman who reported that the secret to his long life was that he drank a bottle of wine every day, except for when he was feeling unwell, in which case he drank two bottles.

Feeling a bit overstuffed from several days of hedonism, my wife and I skipped the dinner wine, though we did end up ordering a fine tawny port for dessert--more on that later.

We began with bread and shallot butter. The bread was a crusty sourdough--good for me, though not for my wife, who hates sourdough. The shallot butter was decent, but a bit too hard to start; it seemed to have come straight from the refrigerator, and I would have preferred having a softer, more spreadable temperature.

For appetizers, we got the Wild Mushroom Truffle Soup and the cheese platter. The truffle soup was good, but a bit bland. I found myself eating it with the sourdough crust to add some texture and snap.

The cheese plate, on the other hand, was outstanding, with lessons we can all take away. While the cheese plate only included three cheeses; a Stilton from Maine, a classic Manchego, and a generous helping of blue cheese, it came with a wonderful variety of accompaniments, including two types of bruschetta (I use the term to denote grilled bread with oil/butter, not the tomato-based bruschettas that seem to predominate these days), a pool of varietal honey, candied walnuts, grapes, cantaloupe, strawberries, and most surprisingly, pineapple.

The key is the variety of accompaniments, including several I had never seen with a cheese plate before (I'm used to grapes, apples, and pears, but certainly not pineapple!). I had a wonderful time trying different combinations. My wife's favorite was bread, Manchego, honey, and strawberry. My preference was bread, blue cheese, honey, and pineapple.

The great thing about this dish is that it should be relatively easy to replicate at home, either for private enjoyment, or as an elegant course at a dinner party. Just pick up 3-4 cheeses from Costco or Trader Joes (don't forget the blue!) and prepare a plate with those cheeses, some honey, and a variety of fruits. I'm thinking that peaches, cherries, and kiwi would also make for an interesting experiment. Perhaps you could even offer an accompaniment bar, and let people decide on their own palette of flavors!

After the cheese plate, dinner itself, while very good, was somewhat anticlimactic. My wife got the Buttermilk Fried Chicken. She found it quite excellent, with great flavor, no greasiness, and accompanied by the best creamed spinach she'd ever eaten. As she noted, she ate every single scrap of edible meat, which indicates how tasty she found the meal.

As for me, I kept up my assault on the burger world by getting Zin's Kobe Beef Burger With Fiscalli Cheddar. The famed beef came on a sliced batard rather than a soft roll, along with fries and three mayonnaises: plain, roasted red pepper, and garlic. It was so big and unwieldy that I ended up asking for a steak knife and deconstructing the burger and eating it in bites.

I had come into the meal warning the server that I didn't think I would eat more than half of my entree; instead, I ate the entire burger, alternating bites with fries dipped in the red pepper and garlic aioli. In the end, however, I felt that the burger, while good, wasn't quite as good as the Ooh La La burger from Grill-A-Burger.

For dessert, we opted for the classic Apple Tartine with vanilla ice cream. I thought that the tart was outstanding, with caramelized apple pieces adding to a unique and intense flavor. My wife, on the other hand, hates caramel, and so was disappointed, though she still ate a significant portion of the crust with ice cream, which she pronounced excellent.

We also had a Gould Campbell 10-Year Tawny Port which was spectacular, not surprising given GC's long history. I can't do justice to the port, so suffice it to say it was the best I can remember tasting, and I've tasted a number of them.

Overall, my wife decided that she liked Pomme Frite better than Zin; I think that had we not ordered the truffle soup, or opted for a different dessert, it might have been closer, but I can't contest her judgment. But I do think that Zin's cheese plate was outstanding, and I can definitely recommend their wine list. Zin also offered great service. I'll offer two examples. One, because I was using the red pepper and garlic aioli, I basically didn't touch the mayo. When I asked one of the staff for more condiments, he brought me a tray, but left the plain mayo cup empty--a clear recognition of my particular dining habits. Two, at one point, my wife went to the restroom. I took the opportunity to glance about the room to gather some details about the ambiance for my review, and a hostess immediately came over to ask if I needed something.

If you love wines and good service, and if you don't hate caramel, Zin is probably a great place to have a meal!

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