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Dinner with an Icon

"Gnocchi" - A sure bet for my Top 5 this year

From the Rhone region - heavy on the pepper and aggressive on my white teeth!

The famous Chicken and Warm Bread Salad

One of about 8 portions from the salad.

View onto the open kitchen from my seat.

Leftovers = chicken sandwich the next day

Dining at Zuni Cafe will bring a smile to your face. On the surface, the restaurant’s approach is seemingly simple: the decor, the dishes, and the service. But something seriously special lies beneath the comfortable exterior. I consider Zuni one of San Francisco’s iconic restaurants: open since 1979, it’s consistently a favorite among food critics, the inspiration for its eponymous cookbook, and even a celebrity destination (Brad & Angelina are reportedly fans). Yes, my expectations were on the higher end of the spectrum when I walked in last Friday night.

If you go, please sit upstairs (the first and probably last time I advise NOT sitting at the bar. In fact, there are no bar stools so, luckily for me, it’s not even a temptation). The second level is a small maze of private nooks and passageways that create a wonderfully cozy and private dining experience. I was lucky enough to sit overlooking the kitchen below and got to watch the cooks buzzing around the kitchen. I’ve never eaten at a B&B, but I imagine this might be what it’s like.

While the restaurant itself is iconic, there are few individual dishes more famous in this city than its Chicken & Warm Bread Salad (Danko’s lobster risotto, Mina’s tartare, and Nopa’s pork chop also pop to mind). Because the salad is made to order, it takes approximately one hour to arrive – so order it the moment you sit down. It is portioned for two – in reality, it could easily feed four – so negotiate with your dining partner beforehand that this is what he/she will be eating with you. At $48, it’s actually quite a good value: not only did it feed Adrienne and me for dinner, but as you can see from the photo, it made a delightful sandwich the following day (and the day after that, and the day after that…)

Just the image of the salad is astounding: an entire roasted chicken piled high atop chunks of warm bread (think giant, soft croutons) and a subtle amount of greens. To call it a salad is almost doing it a disservice; it’s almost entirely meat and carbs. The tiny currants and pine nuts add tartness and crunch to each bite. To me, chicken is difficult to make exciting (unless it’s battered and deep fried) but Zuni’s preparation got me giddy. The chicken itself was perfectly salty and juicy while the skin was crispy. Add that to the unusual accompaniments and I couldn’t think of anything I’d eaten like it. It’s one of a kind.

I mentioned the hour wait for the chicken – view this as an opportunity to be blown away before the salad, because you will be. Adrienne and I opted for the Bellwether Farms ricotta gnocchi with black trumpet mushrooms and spinach. Never, ever have I tasted something like this before. Technically, the dish isn’t really gnocchi as there isn’t any potato; it’s made solely of flour, ricotta, and egg (our server, Tim, was incredibly patient and knowledgeable about everything on the menu). Who the &%$# cares what a dish is called when the resulting bite is a light, yet insanely rich taste of heaven. Each pillow is an explosion of flavors: mild ricotta, rich egg yolks, mushrooms, and an occasional crunch from the few nuts sprinkled over the top. It’s paradoxical how the “gnocchi” can be so airy yet at the same time so expressive. I know Italy is in no shape to handle another blow, but this dish outdid anything I ate there last month. Top 5 dishes of the year.

The wine selection is long and our server Tim was an expert. I was on a mission to try a Rhone and he walked us through the ten or so options, providing a descriptive explanation for each. We decided on the 2008 Saint Joseph, which was a little too peppery for me, but I’m glad I tried it. Like everything else about the restaurant, the service is unpretentious but still totally on point.

I frequently get asked “where I should take so-and-so when they’re in town?” Answer: Zuni.

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