Inner Zuni

A return trip to the fountainhead of creative California cooking proves a soul-satisfying experience

It hurt to boycott Zuni Cafe. I had such fond memories of the place from the early '80s, when it was half its current size, the menu had a Southwestern slant, and the guacamole was the best in town. I was a faithful patron as Zuni made the move into southern French and Italian cooking. And so, once I spurned Zuni, I mourned the sinfully rich polenta with mascarpone, the outstanding selection of fresh oysters, a Caesar salad that put others to shame, and the definitive burger, on focaccia with grilled onions.

But I was determined to stay away. After several visits where the attitude at the door was incredibly condescending and the frosty waitstaff too refined to bother with pesky questions from mere mortals like me, I'd had it. They were mean to me, and I wasn't going to give them my money anymore.

My resolve was tested constantly by friends reporting transcendent lunches (oh, the pizza!) and ecstatic dinners (roast chicken with bread salad -- unbelievable!). But no, I wasn't a fool, a girlish trifle to be toyed with.

Holding a grudge, however, isn't easy, especially in the Bay Area, the worldwide center of tolerance and acceptance. Finally, I decided to admit my powerlessness over the Zuni craving, find my inner child, and take her to lunch.

We arrived at 12:30 p.m. and were greeted pleasantly and swept immediately to a choice table in the main dining room behind the bar/entry room. I tried to act accustomed to such civil treatment, but an ugly regressive part of me wanted to inquire, "Excuse me? Aren't you supposed to dump me upstairs in the crummy back room after a 45-minute wait?" As we glided past the copper bar, I noticed that Zuni still attracts the beautiful people, lounging in casual designery clothes and wearing Persol sunglasses.

Once seated, I had to point out the brick oven, stacks of wood piled high beside it, to the child. Zuni was one of the first places in town to have one, I told her, feeling my attitude begin to soften as I indulged in a bit of nostalgia about my early days in the city and how glamorous it all seemed. And look, Acme pain au levain. Just as I remembered it.

As I glanced at the menu, my heart skipped a beat. They were still there, all the old classics. Hello Caesar ($8). It's been a long time polenta (with mascarpone or Parmesan, $4.50). Nice to be back, hamburger on rosemary focaccia ($8), with choice of Gruyere, Gorgonzola, grilled onions, or mushrooms ($8.50).

"We have to have the Caesar for old times' sake, and a pizza [with ricotta salata, tomato sauce, and oregano, $8.75]. But this is the '90s, let's go for something new -- risotto cakes with squash blossoms, pine nuts, and Parmesan [$9]," I suggested. The child nodded wisely.

Our waiter, while not exactly exuding warmth, was efficient and responsive. We, on the other hand, gushed over everything. Eating at Zuni makes you realize how many bad Zuni wannabes there are in town.

The Caesar, inner leaves of romaine lightly bathed in a lemony dressing with a hint of anchovy and dusted with grated Parmesan, was even better than I'd remembered. The pizza crust was so light, the toppings so delicate and fresh, it was easy for me to almost finish it before sharing a bite with the kid. And the risotto cakes, although a bit miserly at $9, were rich and creamy, the sauteed squash blossoms a colorful and delectable addition.

"Let's come back for dinner," the child suggested, leading me to reflect how happy I was to be tuned in to her.

We returned at 6:15 on Friday night to find an almost empty restaurant. Again, we were greeted graciously, and whisked upstairs to the aforementioned back room. Siberia. "Should we ask for another table?" I wondered. "Don't worry about geography," said the kid, adding something that sounded like, "Wherever you go, there you are." (A hint for dining at Zuni: If you can't get the brick oven room, request upstairs over the bar. It's much more lively.)

Our waiter, Michael, who's been at Zuni "forever," was so attentive and knowledgeable, I soon forgot problems of location. Glancing at the oyster list, I asked him what he suggested as a complement to the tiny, sweet Pacific Kumamoto. (Prices range from $1.30 to $1.50 per oyster; no bargain here.) "Why not get something totally different -- from the Atlantic, the Wellfleet?" he suggested. Done. The oyster setup was just as always, the rye bread a bit stale. Kumamotos were superb; the larger, brinier Wellfleets a nice contrast.

House-cured anchovies with celery and Parmesan ($6), another Zuni classic, were drizzled with excellent olive oil. Far less salty and intense-tasting than canned anchovies, they're an unusual treat. Salt-roasted shrimp with corn and purple sage ($9.50) -- four large, perfectly cooked shrimp in their shells with sweet white corn right off the cob -- would have been divine, save for the chunks of sea salt scattered throughout.

I just barely resisted the roasted quail stuffed with chard, almonds, sultanas, ricotta salata, and pancetta ($16.50), choosing the grilled swordfish marinated with rosemary and lemon, with grilled scallions, radicchio, red onions, and lentils ($18). I rarely order swordfish, as I live near an excellent fish market (Bryan's in Laurel Village) and often grill it at home. I was curious about how Zuni would make it special. It was flawlessly cooked, the lemon and rosemary singing through the tender fish, the grilled vegetables and lentils well-suited to the lightness of the dish. Overall, $18 still seemed high.

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