Zuni Café, San Francisco: ‘Not merely a list of dishes, but a way of life’ – restaurant review | Jay Rayner

Is it sensational? Not quite, but it is very good. However, there are many other dishes to enjoy at this famed San Francisco restaurant, says Jay Rayner

Zuni Café, 1658 Market Street, San Francisco (001 415 552 2522). Meal for two, including drinks, service and chicken $180 (£130)

How do you roast a chicken? Every meat eater has a method. Here’s mine. First I spatchcock the bird, by cutting down the backbone and opening it up so it looks like a huge albino toad. It roasts quicker that way, and where roast chicken is concerned quick is your friend. I smear it with olive oil, squeeze over the juice of a lemon, then season it with salt and pepper.

I sprinkle it with fennel seeds. You want amounts don’t you, but I’ve never measured it. How about two tablespoons full? That sounds all grown up and precise. I stuff large knobs of butter into the bird’s crevices, while shouting at whichever tosspot pro-Brexit Tory MP is being interviewed on Radio 4’s PM. Finally, I shove it in a hot oven and forget about it for 45 minutes. After that it gets 10 minutes on its back. I turn it back over, baste it a bit and wait until it’s crisp. I check this by stealing the parson’s nose. My kitchen, my perks.

And that’s it, in two short paragraphs. The recipe for the famed roast chicken served at the equally famed Zuni Café in San Francisco, fills four and half pages of the Zuni Café Cookbook. According to the revered Zuni chef Judy Rodgers, who died in 2013, it involves pre-salting at least 24 hours before you want to roast it. You also have to probe the space between skin and breast with nimble fingers, so as to stuff it with herbs. Next you have to take it to a retrospective of Woody Allen movies, followed by a feverish debate over whether the man’s work can be separated from his alleged behaviour.

You might as well do that; you’ll be spending a lot of time with this chicken. There’s also a salad of old, rough bread, pine nuts and currants to be made, a kind of stuffing that never makes it inside the bird. All these things take time, conviction and a sense of unease that you’ve roundly screwed up what should be very simple.

Zuni
Chicken for the soul? Zuni Café’s roast chicken. Photograph: Erin Ng for the Observer

The most familiar dishes are always the most controversial where restaurants are concerned, and there are few more familiar than a chicken, roasted. It is the dish most likely to bring out the joyless inverse snobs who want you to know that they could do this at home at a fraction of the cost. Such people are of course welcome to stay home and enjoy their bitter, strangulated lives. The rest of us are welcome to find out if the professionals really can make the quotidian into the extraordinary, if we have the cash.

The Zuni roast chicken is certainly a thing. It has featured on myriad lists of greatest restaurant dishes, compiled by the sort of magazines that put pictures of eroticised cheesecake on the cover. It has been like that pretty much since Rodgers arrived there from Alice Waters’s famed Chez Panisse just across the bay in 1987. The restaurant, occupying its triangular corner space on Market Street, is dominated by a wood-fired oven. Logs are piled around it. We are in a faux peasant, faux rustic fantasy. Along with the cooking of other Chez Panisse alumni, such as chefs Jeremiah Tower and David Tanis, Zuni has long been regarded as a standard bearer for a refined Californian-Italian style of cookery. The menu references tender herbs, and fennel, which is always shaved. It is not merely a list of dishes. It’s a way of life.

Here then am I, in San Francisco. I have never before tried the Zuni roast chicken. It must be done. Five of us order two of them the moment we sit down. It always takes 60 minutes, so you have to get ahead of the game. Each one costs $58. This includes the bread salad under the bird and a thicket of dressed salad leaves on top, which changes with the seasons. At the moment it’s frilly mustard greens, and very pretty it is, too. That price does not include service, an obligatory 20%. So that’s $70. In mitigation each chicken can easily feed three.

Zuni
Hail caesar salad: ‘It reminds you why it is a classic that needs no adornment.’ Photograph: Erin Ng for the Observer

So how is it? Sensational? Not quite, but it is very, very good. They cook it fast and untrussed. The skin is properly crisp. The meat is not at all dry and, praise be, it tastes of something. The great failing is the lack of lubrication. No gravy, jus or juices. It cries out for a drenching, not to make it less dry but to make it more thrilling.

Happily, though, there is the bread salad, full of crisped croutons dressed first in the molten chicken fat and then a fine vinaigrette, with hits of sour and sweet from the currants. On the side is a rustling heap of matchstick-like shoestring potatoes, at another $8. My suspicion is that to replicate this at home really would take a couple of days, and even then you wouldn’t quite be there. But it is one of those bucket list jobs. I’ve done it. I don’t quite feel the need to do it again, not at that price.

Curiously, I would rush back for many of the other things: the perfect, unviolated caesar salad, possibly the best version I’ve ever eaten. There are crisp leaves of romaine, garlicky croutons, a simple dressing of olive oil, vinegar, a touch of mustard and minced anchovies. It reminds you why it is a classic that needs no adornment. I love the plate of their own cured anchovies, alongside finely sliced parmesan and celery, bathing in a pool of peppery olive oil. A pizza laid with “wagon wheel cheese” – if only they knew what bursts of sweaty-palmed nostalgia those words conjure in the UK – sliced roast pork, garlic and orange zest is exceptionally good. The thin crust is blistered from its journey through the ferocious heat of the wood-fired oven.

Zuni
Gateau Victoire: ‘It looks like it will be heavy and cloying. It is lightness itself.’ Photograph: Erin Ng for the Observer

Desserts are good, too, especially a Pavlova built around a crisp and soft snowy-white meringue, with the plump burst of purple huckleberries, and a Gateau Victoire of the very darkest chocolate. It looks like it will be heavy and cloying. It is lightness itself. Of course, the final bill for all this is of a sort that a city in thrall to tech Leviathan money will encourage, though you can eat there for much less. What’s striking is that a restaurant that has been around for decades is still doing the thing. It’s not become a parody of itself, knocking out greatest hits. The chicken makes its own case. That’s a remarkable achievement.

Jay’s news bites

Back in London, and at the other end of the financial scale, is the rotisserie chicken outfit Cocotte, with both a restaurant in Westbourne Grove and a delivery-only kitchen. A full bird costs £22, gets a proper seeing to on the rotisserie, and comes with, among other things, a punchy gravy. Side salads are hearty and they serve terrific roasted new potatoes (mycocotte.co.uk).

A Swedish app called Karma, enabling customers to buy discounted restaurant food that might otherwise be thrown away, has launched in London. According to Wrap, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, wasted food costs UK restaurants £700m a year. Already 50 restaurants, including Aquavit and Calcutta Street, have signed up.

Congrats to chef Stephen Harris whose Sportsman Cookbook, named after his pub restaurant in Kent, won the André Simon food book of the year last week. The Observer’s Rachel Cooke, who was tasked with making the choice, described it as ‘inspirational, well-written and expert’.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

Read more: www.theguardian.com

About the Author

Leave a Comment: