Zuni Cafe

by Caleb Zigas on November 10, 2004

That Zuni Cafe is an institution in and of itself should come as no surprise. The venerable restaurant, which has occupied the same spot on Market Street for the last 25 years, is often mentioned as the only viable San Francisco equivalent to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. In reality, Zuni, though cut from much the same cloth of fresh, local and sustainable food, serves a much different purpose than Ms. Waters’ more esoteric East Bay eatery. In fact, Zuni is a home, and more than just a foodie’s refuge, it is a home for the people who work there, eat there, and have come to count on its presence in the city.

Chef Judy Rogers notes on her menu that all of the food at Zuni is sustainably and organically farmed whenever possible. That menu, which changes almost daily, offers a range of options from smaller starters, soups and salads to slow-roasted entrees and their legendary 50-minute chicken. In a city where I think seasonality is a tough sell, Ms. Rogers does her best to bring fall flavors to San Francisco and the lightness of summer can be seen on the sidewalk tables that are almost always full come June. The emphasis here is not simply on the food but also on the feeling, the way that certain foods and spaces can make you feel like you’re home.

Zuni begins as a space. It is unique in its shape, with certain references to New York’s Flatiron Building, and the shape itself gives the restaurant an initial uniqueness. The rustic aesthetic, complimented with muted colors, and the warmth of the important wood-burning oven, translates to the food-all of the dishes are simple renditions of basic meals. The signature dish, for instance, is a chicken roasted in the wood-burning oven. Diners are warned that the dish itself takes fifty minutes to prepare, but the elaborate preparation time belies the food’s simplicity. Zuni’s roast chicken is simply that, served over a warm bread salad that mimics the direct lines and flavors of the chicken itself. For some, the dish is worth neither the hype nor the wait, but it remains a testament to the kitchen’s devotion to simplicity at any cost.

Other dishes follow suit. On one visit a grilled rockfish accompanied grilled zucchini and vegetables, a beautiful late summer dish. However, with this dish, as with many others on some visits, the purity of the ingredients proved a double-edged sword. It seems, somewhat often, that Ms. Rogers and her staff believe so much in the value of their ingredients that they fail to amplify those flavors. In the case of the fish, the vegetables were perfect, they even tasted like the grill, but the fish failed to match that intensity, thus rendering the focal point of the dish something less than crucial.

Other dishes were more successful, most often the smaller sizes-a wonderful chanterelle pasta one night and a brilliant kale and faro soup on a cold October night. Both of these dishes combined the rustic truth of the ingredients with a seasoned weight that insured they would not stay long on the table. Those are the moments that give Zuni its continuing importance-the flavors that keep a 25 year old restaurant from growing stale. On my last visit, regrettably, I didn’t get to try the braised short ribs, though I imagine that it was the kind of dish that Zuni would do perfectly. Short ribs rely on patience and an attention to the product itself, as with most slow-cooked or braised items, and the heavy flavors and sauces that result give the attention to simplicity and seasonality a renewed vigor.

The main reason we didn’t try the short-ribs lies in what I think is one of the best ways to approach Zuni. With a kitchen that is open most nights until midnight, and the welcome feeling of an old friend, there’s a certain inclination to make Zuni a regular part of one’s week, but the prices are prohibitive. Fortunately, however, two things that Zuni does spectacularly well also happen to be two of its most affordable options-their expansive raw bar and their Niman Ranch hamburgers. It should be noted that this does not mean that Zuni is inexpensive, though neither must it be outlandishly extravagant.

The raw bar list at Zuni is handed to you along with the regular menu with the day’s featured shellfish marked for availability. Trust the waiters-they probably know more than you about oysters, and they are professional enough to pick based on flavor and not simply on price point. After the oysters, the burgers provide a hearty meal. It may seem slightly unorthodox to go to a restaurant as renowned as Zuni for the hamburgers, and I’m certainly not suggesting that you only eat them, but if you intend to go more than once, or if you simply want a great meal at a good price, the perfectly moist foccacia bun, the top-grade beef, and their own pickled vegetables will give you exactly what you need. Starting at $11, granted a lot for a burger, and then increasing from there depending on your toppings, the burgers are worth every penny. A side of fries to share goes nicely, or you might think about one of the smaller dishes.

The option of oysters and burgers allows for more flexibility in several areas. If you want a nice night out with a good wine and good food, Zuni offers plenty of half-bottles for white wine, and a great list of reds. The service is a little uneasy, as if much of the staff has either spent too much time in restaurants or too little, but it’s never unprofessional. Our best waiter was fantastic-he was both accommodating and willing to help us pick a wine that suited our meal, and our budgets, perfectly.

More than anything, Zuni is a wonderful place to be. It is something in this city that can be counted on, and that has to count for something. From its very design to the view out onto an urban landscape that is far from spotless, Zuni feels like a microcosm of a contradictory San Francisco. It is both an escape and an event, both part of its community and entirely removed from it. Restaurants do not survive for 25 years simply because of their patience-they do so because they deserve it. Zuni more than deserves it; it should be the model for any restaurant that plans on some measure of longevity, or, for that matter, a model for most every restaurant period.

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