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The idea was to share a classic girls' night out: Mexican food and margaritas on the fourth floor of the Westfield Shopping Centre. Even if we didn't intend to spend much time shopping, there would be inevitable window-shopping as we escalated from floor to floor.
Zazil, like every book published today, it seems, has a subtitle: Coastal Mexican Cuisine. My experience of Mexico has mostly been coastal, as it happens: Guaymas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Zihuatanejo. Hot sun, bright blue water, and sugary sand dominate the memory, followed closely by eating charbroiled fish-on-a-stick hawked up and down the beach, and then feasting on ceviches, broiled spiny lobsters, and white-fleshed fish served in sauteed garlic.
Unlike the other restaurants with which it shares the fourth floor of the Centre, which are closed off behind dark-brown shiny facades, Zazil's fourth wall is open and inviting, separated by only a low metal railing, like the patio-lined eateries of a resort. You get a vaguely beachy sensation of glittering and white and blue, intensified when you sit down and can admire the bright white walls, which evoke Mexican villas clinging to cliffs above the sea, referenced in the blue fabric upholstering the pale wood and chrome chairs and the sinuous banquette.
845 Market St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: South of Market
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Ceviche trilogy $18
Beef with yellow mole $24
Tikin xic fish $24
Requesón tiramisu $8
We're lucky enough to be sitting at one of the banquette tables near a fat column wrapped in tree limbs, admiring the enormous basketlike weavings encasing several huge light fixtures hanging above us. Aline is pleasantly reminded of the work of San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa, currently being shown at the de Young Museum. "This," she says, "is a nice room."
The menu is pretty fancy no charbroiled fish-on-a-stick here not to mention pricy. The offerings run to chilpachole de canegro, i.e. spicy crab soup, whose description requires two lines and references four different chilis, and enchiladas de flor de jamaica, which are hibiscus flower enchiladas with chipotle sauce and queso fresco. All the prices are in the double digits.
The drinks menu offers 15 individually named margaritas, which is more dazzling before I realize that 14 of them are named for the different tequila they contain, bumping up the tariff from $10 to $11 or $12, depending. I go for the bottom-line margarita Zazil, not just because it seems a good value at $8, but because it's named after the restaurant. Too late I realize it's also the only one tinted with blue curaçao, kinda goofy-looking but very Girls Gone Wild. Aline chooses the margarita Corzo, made with Corzo Silver, described as "elegant and flavorful, with notes of citrus and vanilla." We're brought lovely warm little corn tortillas, obviously hand-made, wrapped in a napkin, and a trio of salsas, which the server identifies as "mild, medium, and hot," in a tricky curved glass holder. When we request more information, he points out guajillo (the mild green sauce), chipotle (the smoky brown medium one), and then identifies the reddish hot sauce as "mixed." It's fun to dip chunks of torn-up tortilla in them; they're all thin, full of flavor, and enticing.
We can't resist the guacamole, theatrically prepared tableside, in a heavy black molcajete (mortar), which is just for show, lined as it is with a black plastic bowl. The server spoons three avocado halves into the bowl, asking "mild, medium, or hot?" before adding diced tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeño, and lime juice. We've gone for the medium alternative; it's entirely pleasant, but Aline misses the salt and crunch that tortilla chips, inevitable in any Mexican restaurant but here, would provide. (I now regret that I didn't ask if the kitchen had any on offer, or would fry a few up to order. At dinner, I would have felt like a rube, but in reality she was right.)
Our other appetizer was called a tamal Campechano, a Campeche crab tamale made of corn mesa, we read, stuffed with shredded crabmeat, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed with sauce chiltomate. It came prettily topped with shredded queso fresco, but was disappointingly dull, the flavor of crab drowned by the tomatoey sauce.
And our main courses were equally disappointing. Well, the cochinita pibil was more than disappointing. I thought it was a disaster: a carefully assembled banana-leaf box filled with tasteless soft shredded pork in a sauce that betrayed nothing of the axiote and orange juice marinade described. I've never had such a boring version of the dish.
Aline, after considering and rejecting the idea of shrimp enchiladas, went for the huitlacoche chicken, since she'd never tasted the exotic corn fungus it was stuffed with, alongside, supposedly, portobello mushrooms, squash, and white corn. The presentation was dazzling: a big boned breast, sided with lacy potato strings, on a bed of potato purée, with fresh vegetables including bright green zucchini and bright orange carrots on the side. It took some doing to reveal the stuffing, which turned out to be a thin black purée tasting of nothing much. The chicken itself was nice and moist, but neither the stuffing nor the not-very-garlicky garlic-poblano sauce lent it much glamour.
We chose a chocolate tamale from the six enticing and rather unusual desserts on offer, but it ended our meal with a thud: We couldn't taste much chocolate nor chili in the brown mesa, and it wasn't noticeably improved by its bed of mixed-berry sauce, nor squiggles of chocolate sauce, nor whipped cream. Girls Gone Mild, I thought. I felt apologetic.