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Zuni Cafe


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I finally had a full meal at SF hot-spot, Zuni Cafe. I had a great time, but the food was too inconsistent for me to rave about the place.

When I strolled up, there was some guy out front with blown-dry hair arrogantly pulling on a fat cigar. Oy. Then I had some trouble getting a drink the bar, although it was well staffed. But since I was already three glasses of scotch into the evening (Springbank, neat -- very nice), I didn't really care.

Other than that slight wait at the bar, I can say that the service was probably the best part of the evening -- which goes a long way. They originally sat us at the wrong table and asked us to move. We didn't mind in the least, but they gave us a free round of drinks any (scotch number 5 for me -- thus, the details of this review will be hazy). The servers managed to be nice, friendly, funny and present without being overbearing or hovering. Terrific.

We started with two dozen oysters. I'm starting to understand what the oyster stuff is all about. We had four types, half from the Atlantic and half from the Pacific. The only one I can remember is Miyagi. (Unfortunately they were out of the Bolinas area Sweetwater about which I'd read recently.) The oysters were fresh and plump and sweet. Nothing slick or oily about them. And one type of the Atlantic oysters burst forth with the aroma of a good ocean mist. Something I'd never experienced before, and now I'll start trying more oysters. Perhaps the fact that they were served with only lemon and a sweet vinegar -- no tobasco or horseradish -- helped me really taste the oysters. (I recall a bottle of wine arrived with the oyseters. It was white. I drank about 2 glasses.)

The cheese plate was the biggest disappointment as I'd heard so much about it. There were five cheeses, the only one I recall by name was Cowgirl Creamery. It wouldn't be worth trying to remember, because the portions of each were so smallthat the four of us could barely share enough to get the cheese onto our tongues and into the taste buds. Not really enough for a swallow. The blue cheese arrived in a paper thin triangle covered completely in honey. Nice, but I would have liked to taste the cheese. The sweet dates were very good.

We arrived at 9:30 and ordered the famed chicken for two (allow 50 minutes), hanger steak (or was it skirt?), halibut and a burger -- (they don't serve burgers until 10, so the waiter waited (how appropriate) to put in the order.

The halibut was tasty, but overcooked. It was dry and reminded me slightly of canned salmon.

The steak was also nothing special. It seemed to be nothing but well-grilled flank steak, not hanger, and didn't have the texture or flavor I expect from hanger steak. It was, however, served with a very interesting side, which I'm sure someone here can identify for me. It was day old bread stewed with fresh tomatoes and chopped fresh herbs. It looked like a reddish mashed potato. Although the presentation was not pleasant to my eye, the taste and texture was quite good. The tomato flavor was fresh and sweet with a slight bite to it. The bread managed to hold up well.

The burger was good, but nothing great. I respectable portion, but not a great hulking burger that beasts like me appreciate. I realized that the best part of the flavor came more from being well-salted (enough to open the taste up, but not too much to offend), rather than from the beef. It was served on sliced focaccia, which I didn't mind at all, with sweet red onion, tomato and a nice slice of a blood red tomato.

The chicken was easily the high-point of the meal. It deserves its reputation. A whole bird, but into 8 pieces and served simply. The meat was plump and juicy. It was lightly spiced which allowed the taste of the bird to dominate. The skin was outstanding. Golden in color and papery crisp, there was not a hint of grease or burnt areas.

I'm pretty sure we skipped dessert.

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I've been going to zuni since i stepped foot in SF 8.5 years ago... my husband & i go there every valentines day as well as a few other times a year. I always order the chicken for 2. it is one of my all time favorite dishes and in the 30+ times i've been there has yet to dissapoint. I DREAM about the tuscan bread salad that comes with it...

we also try to order oysters (DSTONE - if you want more info on oysters, let me know), the shoestring potatoes & the caesar... all winners, every time.

my husband has had the burger when we've been there for lunch & i hate it... (he'll eat any burger, any time w/ no complaints). For a GREAT burger, try Eastside West (mind you i am VERY boiased about this place, but trust me, the burger ROCKS!!)

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The problem with Eastside West is location, location, location. I can't think of many corners in the city I least like to frequent. (Less like?) But the food I've had there has been pretty good, and the staff is terrific.

(I sat out there last Friday, pissed off that the city devotes about five police cars to making sure the no one from the overblown frat-parties (viz: Balboa, Matrix, etc.) steps on the sidewalk with a redbull and vodka, yet people sell/use crack and heroin all over the Mission and there's hardly a cop to be seen.)

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The problem with Eastside West is location, location, location.  I can't think of many corners in the city I least like to frequent.  (Less like?)  But the food I've had there has been pretty good, and the staff is terrific.

(I sat out there last Friday, pissed off that the city devotes about five police cars to making sure the no one from the overblown frat-parties (viz: Balboa, Matrix, etc.) steps on the sidewalk with a redbull and vodka, yet people sell/use crack and heroin all over the Mission and there's hardly a cop to be seen.)

so, you're going to hold a great burger against a neighborhood? trust me friend, i feel the same way when i see the cops on the corner on a saturday night smoking cigars... go for brunch on saturday then, tell them elsbeth sent you...

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  • 6 months later...

I've now been to Zuni a bunch of times. I really like this place. Perhaps most because of the atmosphere. It's open, boisterous without being loud, dimmed lights without being dark, casual without being sloppy.

The food is pretty good also.

First, the oysters. I don't eat a lot of oysters, but this is certainly my favorite place for them. They're served in a spartan manner -- oysters, a half lemon, and a small cup of champagne mignonette (champagne, vinegar shallot). No tobasco or horseradish. I have to ask myself why T&H are usual accompanyments to oysters? The oysters flavor is so subtle and delictate that even a small dash of lemon can overpower it. Seems to me that putting tobasco and horseradish on it would defeat the purpose.

We had a dozen -- 4 Sweetwater (from Tomales Bay), 4 kumamoto (Humboldt), and 4 St. Anne (East Coast). I believe SF Magazine had listed sweetwater oysters as one of the 125 best things to eat in the bay area. This was the first time I'd been able to sample them. They were terrfic. Mid-sized, meaty, with almost a savory flavor to them. I always love kumamoto's -- small, salty with a hint of citrus. I wasn't a fan of the St. Anne. They had a firmer flesh, almost like a clam. I didn't get much flavor out of them, although they were the largest of the bunch.

After that came the caesar salad. What a pleasure to actually have fresh made caesar, instead of the jarred creamy italian concoction that so many restaurants try to pass off as caeser. The dressing should be a light coating on the romaine, not a plotz of mayonaisse with garlic. This was terrific, and the single portion easily shared by two.

Finally we had the chicken. A damn fine chicken I must say. I think I can cook a good roast chicken at home, but I never order it out because it's almost always a disappointment. Not this bird. Although the Zuni cookbook says to use a smaller chicken (thereby increasing the skin/fat to meat ratio for better basting), the dish easily serves two people. The skin comes out golden brown and crisp, with hints of herbs and a healthy dose of salt that is unmistakable but in no way overpowering. (I recall that their vaunted burger was also "salty" (I think I read that the meat is "cured" in salt overnight?) I wonder if salt is to Zuni what butter is to French Laundry.) The meat remains moist and juicy and bursting with flavor.

The chicken is served cut into 8 pieces, "tossed" with micro greens and served atop "bread salad". For the bread, a stale hearty peasant bread is cut into chunks and tossed in a vinegretter. The chicken is laid on top so its juices soak into the bread, turning it into a wonderful mix of crunchy/chewy bread with acid and fat.

The only drawback was the wait time for the chicken. The menu says to expect 50 minutes. It seemed like a longer wait, and, of course, I used that time to fill up on bread. Boo.

(dvs -- my comment on the cops at Eastside West was poorly worded frustration at the way the city allocates its police resources. There are parts of SF that desparately need police presence, and the Marina ain't it. My dislike for the location of Eastside West, however, is not because of the cops.)

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Glad they've finally won you over. Zuni is my definite stop every time I'm in the area and I could just spend hours at the bar (when I could spend hours at the bar, dagnabit) sampling the oysters and getting squiffy.

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Finally we had the chicken.  A damn fine chicken I must say.  I think I can cook a good roast chicken at home, but I never order it out because it's almost always a disappointment.  Not this bird.  Although the Zuni cookbook says to use a smaller chicken (thereby increasing the skin/fat to meat ratio for better basting), the dish easily serves two people.  The skin comes out golden brown and crisp, with hints of herbs and a healthy dose of salt that is unmistakable but in no way overpowering.  (I recall that their vaunted burger was also "salty" (I think I read that the meat is "cured" in salt overnight?)  I wonder if salt is to Zuni what butter is to French Laundry.)  The meat remains moist and juicy and bursting with flavor. 

Judy Rodgers is really into salt. In her cookbook she talks about how much she loves presalting everything (ok, not everything). She says she always knows when someone didn't add salt to the chicken stock at the very beginning and how you need to sprinkle salt on meats hours before you cook them. I love her because she wants you to salt stuff and leave it sitting on the counter for hours. I'm not being sarcastic actually, with good quality meat you should be able to leave it so that it comes to room temp before cooking without fearing for your life.

The oysters at Zuni are the only ones I've eaten that come close to shucking them yourself. Yum.

regards,

trillium (who remembers when Zuni was a southwestern place)

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Your first review was lukewarm at best.  What made you give it more tries?

Zuni is about as famous as it gets in SF, so many people want to go and I figured it deserved a few more chances. Also, I do really enjoy the atmosphere, although I can't put it into words.

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Never been to Zuni or even San Francisco for that matter, but I did get the cookbook! :biggrin:

Has anyone made the roast chicken and bread salad from the book? Was it as good as the restaurant?

I was planning to make it a week or 2 ago but couldn't find any whole chickens, the next time I find a chicken though...............

EDIT: I second what trillium said about the salt, she mentions something about the joys of salt on almost every page!

Edited by torakris (log)

Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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  • 7 months later...

I had a lovely lunch today at Zuni—it reminded me how much I like lunching there. I was having one of those days when I simply couldn’t really focus and get anything done so I just gave up and took the afternoon off. I ended up at Zuni and got a nice table by the window. It was a perfect San Francisco afternoon, Zuni’s bar area where I sat was airy, drenched with light and just crowded enough to not feel lonely but sparse enough to still be able to pretend you’re in your own space.

I decided on some oysters, a starter of house-cured anchovies, and the famous Caesar’s salad. I had an Olympia from Washington, and Kumamoto and flat oyster from Hog Island. They are all great but the Hog Island flat oyster was particularly fabulous. Zuni remains the best place to have oysters in town in my opinion, unless you’re willing to crack them open on your own (which I’m not particularly fond of doing), in which case the Hog Island stand at the farmer’s market would be.

The house cured anchovies were great--briny and sweet, the perfect middle ground between the dark oil-packed anchovies and the vinegary Spanish cured anchovies. The anchovies were served with Manchego cheese, nicoise olives and thinly sliced pieces of celery, all doused in olive oil and sprinkled with cracked black pepper. Each bite of the briny anchovy with a bit of the salty and creamy cheese and fresh crunch of the celery made for a wonderful flavor and texture combination.

Then the salad arrived. What can I say about the salad? I know a lot of people thought it was overrated, but I’ve always loved it. It definitely is the perfect ceasar’s salad in my opinion, freshly done, ample anchovies, and oh, simply perfect. I am biased, what can I say?

I had a glass of Semillon that was rather pleasant but nothing to wax poetic about.

For desserts, I decided on a tart of Roysum plum which was served with vanilla ice cream. The tart was delicious, nice balance of sweetness and acidity, and the crust was fabulously buttery and flaky. I was less impressed by the ice cream, which was obviously not homemade and left pretty much the whole scoop untouched. I would have preferred a simple whipped cream with the tart rather than the slightly mediocre ice cream. I ordered a pot of Assam tea to accompany the dessert. I should have known better than to order tea in restaurants, they are almost always mediocre, either over brewed or bad quality leaves. The leaves weren’t so bad here actually, but my waitress used far too large a quantity of leaves in such a tiny pot, the tea ended up bitter and over-brewed. Oh well.

The bill came to be just about 50$ without the tip (I also had a bottle of Panna). It was a bit of an indulgence for lunch, but the room was very pleasant, the service very friendly, and I was perfectly happy with the meal.

On the way home I walked by the tiny shop Yum and decided to stop by. Every time I go there I tell myself I should go there more often. It is really a lovely shop, the selection a bit sparse but well chosen. I left with a jar of fleur de sel of which I am almost out, and a small jar each of sourwood honey and tupelo honey. They are both by the Savannah Bee Co. and are raw and unfiltered. The Tupelo honey is light gold in color, tastes buttery and mild, with a very strong floral note at the end that is a bit stronger than Jean-paul Couto’s Acacia I brought back from Paris. The Sourwood honey is stronger, amber in color, and is absolutely delicious. The taste is a bit like burnt caramel with an ever so slight bitter edge at the end. I can’t wait to have some tomorrow with my Strauss yogurt.

Edited by pim (log)

chez pim

not an arbiter of taste

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Zuni remains the best place to have oysters in town in my opinion, unless you’re willing to crack them open on your own (which I’m not particularly fond of doing), in which case the Hog Island stand at the farmer’s market would be.

I totally agree with you. Lunch at Zuni on a beautiful day in SF is the best.

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Love Zuni. Have been going there since it was first opened all those years ago. It was half the size, and Red Desert (now across Rose Alley) was in the pointy bit at the end where the bar is now.

Yum is terrific, and those folks are so nice and helpful every time I'm in there!

Cheers,

Squeat

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I decided on some oysters, a starter of house-cured anchovies, and the famous Caesar’s salad. I had an Olympia from Washington, and Kumamoto and flat oyster from Hog Island. They are all great but the Hog Island flat oyster was particularly fabulous. Zuni remains the best place to have oysters in town in my opinion, unless you’re willing to crack them open on your own (which I’m not particularly fond of doing), in which case the Hog Island stand at the farmer’s market would be.

I believe that Hog Island has opened an oyster bar at the Ferry Building. Have you had a chance to try it yet?

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  • 1 month later...

This seems to be the most recent thread dedicated to Zuni Cafe, so I'll post here. I went with two friends over the weekend. The space and the bar are great - lots of brick, wood and copper. We went at night, but I imagine it would be bright and warm during the day.

I had at least a bite of everything on the table, and these are my humble impressions.

  • They have a daily menu of raw shellfish, but they weren't offering crab of any sort that day. I started with a dozen Hog Island sweetwater oysters and a half dozen Tomales Bay manila clams. The oysters were fresh, briny and enjoyable, but the clams weren't much to talk about.
    Zuni Caesar salad - excellent, well-dressed
    Mixed chicory salad with Colston-Bassett Stilton, bosc pears and 30 year balsamic vinegar - a bit shy on the vinegar(acid) but very nice.
    House-made boudin noir with delicata squash puree and lamb's lettuce salad - I think this was the most successful dish, just on the strength of the sausage.
    Pasta alla chitarra alla carbonara with applewood smoked bacon, egg, pecorino romano, ricotta and black pepper - salty and one dimensional. It's not important, but the server erroneously described pasta alla chitarra as being named for its resemblance to a guitar string (triangular in cross section?!?), rather than being cut on the chitarra device.
    Bellwether Farms ricotta gnocchi with arugula and mustard flowers - delicate texture, but subtle to the point of blandness.
    Yellowfin tuna grilled rare with frisee, escarole, grapefruit, Pinkerton avocado and coriander vinaigrette - competently prepared, but IMHO not more than the sum of it's parts.

Strictly on the food level, I was little disappointed - but that might be related to some other factors: I had been at the food show tasting all sorts of things all day, and I tend to like big flavors. I can see how it's popular - it's a great environment, and if you get to know the menu, you can eat quite well there, (but it probably involves ordering the Caesar and the roast chicken for two).

I would go back again to give it another try, but I don't think it will be near the top of my list.

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Well Im offically depressed, Im supposed to eat there this sunday night and Im scared to look at anything on the menu other than the oysters and Chicken. I will probably be full of oysters from my lunch that day at Absinthe---dont tell me that place sucks too?

Gorganzola, Provolone, Don't even get me started on this microphone.---MCA Beastie Boys

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dave, I've eaten very well at Zuni. Can't go too far wrong when a wood-fired oven is in the mix. Caesar and chix is an unbeatable meal, and the cheese plates there rival any others I've had. I'm sure you'll enjoy your meal.

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I like Absinthe a lot; see if you can fit in their pomme frites as well and if you like cocktails, they have an interesting list of older ones. If you like chccolate; I've really enjoyed the Scharffenburger pots de creme there as well.

Please keep an open mind w.r.t. Zuni. It is one of my absolutely favorite SF restaurants and I have always had a great time there and really enjoyed the food.

The chicken is great if you (and your dining partner) are in the mood for that. I haven't had the Caesar salad yet, but always manage to get other good salads there, for example, celery, house-cured anchovies, lemon and EVOO. Had another wonderful appetizer there that I can recall that included perfect proscuitto rolled around sauteed bitter greens and served with olives. I can never resist the oysters, but Absinthe is one of the other good places to get them in SF. Zuni's string fries are also excellent, and I've also had great fish there. Another memorable dish was some herbed, grilled shrimp served on excellently, olive-oil stewed white beans. I remember a perfectly grilled sandab! Again, if you like cocktails, also leave space for one at Zuni. And the cheese plates...

One of my favorite things about Zuni is the choice on the menu. There are always so many things that I want to order that it is difficult to decide.

Sad to hear about FoodZealot's experience with the ricotta gnocchi; it is also one of their 'sig' dishes, but I've never tried it.

I envy you; have a great time on Sunday!

Edited by ludja (log)

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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Please keep an open mind w.r.t. Zuni. It is one of my absolutely favorite SF restaurants and I have always had a great time there and really enjoyed the food.

I agree - give it a shot. I am hardly a regular, living on the other coast, but I regretted not having a chance to return on my last visit to SF.

On my one trip there, I remember a perfectly done hangar steak, the caesar salad and a bowl of creamy polenta that was the best I have ever had.

Bill Russell

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... Has anyone made the roast chicken and bread salad from the book? Was it as good as the restaurant?...

EDIT: I second what trillium said about the salt, she mentions something about the joys of salt on almost every page!

Well, almost as good; if I had a wood-fired oven at home perhaps I could duplicate it completely! I am on a life-long quest to perfect roast chicken at home (in other words, I will never be stop trying to take it to the next level of perfection.) The Zuni Cafe Cookbook's version is as close as I've come to ideal. The pre-salting is essential, but is also suggested in several other cookbooks, and I've been doing that for years, so I don't think that's really her secret. I think her secret is using little chickens at high heat; typically, the ones we see around here-at least the free range ones- are close to 5 pounds.

I've never made the bread salad at home, but it is TDF at the restaurant.

PS I just happen to be going there for dinner tonight-I've been many times, but not in a few years.

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PS I just happen to be going there for dinner tonight-I've been many times, but not in a few years.

Thanks for sharing your experience cooking the Zuni roast chicken at home.

And please share your impressions of tonight's dinner at Zuni.

Which reminds me; haven't been at Zuni in the last six months... :smile:

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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Once again, evidence that restaurants are more than places that dispense "cuisine". Almost everyone loves Zuni unreservedly, almost no one would claim that it serves the best food in town. Here's to the intangibles that make a great place work.

Thanks, Russ. Very elegantly put.

In re-reading my comments, they sound a bit more negative than my actual feelings about the place. In fairness to the restaurant, it's based off only one meal. It could have been an off night for the kitchen, or had they had a hangar steak that night, my impression may have been completely changed.

There IS a lot to love about the place - friendly, prompt service, a beautiful space, a feeling of hospitality and a very light touch in preparation (if you like that). Those things can certainly mean a lot, especially because it's the kind of place that you might mark a special occasion with a group, etc.

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