The chalkboard sign at Zare's front door was alluring: Garden -- Heated Patio Seating. When the fog takes its annual autumn vacation, like any kid clinging to the day's last sunshine, I just don't wanna hafta come in for dinner. It's more fun to people-watch at a sidewalk table or feast in faux-rural peace, stretching my legs and smoking (yes, I've sinned) between courses.
Zare's promise drew us through the wood-paneled front dining room, down a few stairs past a narrow, aromatic kitchen, and out to a spacious rear deck, well-hidden from the hassles of the Upper Haight. Christmas lights hanging from tree limbs and the dull orange glow of the heat stanchions provided the only illumination. The lighting was so romantic, I wished I'd brought a flashlight to read the menu and view the food. A clean, plump long-haired tabby wandered among the tables calmly collecting caresses and occasional snacks, while the pump in a small Japanese-style pond beyond the deck's edge provided soothing waterfall sounds.
Zare, owned by well-known restaurateur Hoss Zare, is the Upper Haight's only "destination" restaurant. Nonetheless, most of its patrons stroll only a few blocks to reach it: Workers from nearby businesses flock in for alfresco lunches, and the neighborhood's young renters and families appreciate it as the area's sole serious dinner house. (To some other local residents -- the raucous clique of loadies ensconced on the corner, the doorway-dwellers conversing with imaginary friends -- the Haight itself may once have been an intentional destination, but dining at Zare probably didn't play any part in their plans. They're unlikely to follow you inside or show up at the next table.)
The restaurant originally served Middle Eastern food, but has more recently come to feature the cross-cultural blendings of California cuisine. What other term could encompass the four nationalities packed into one gargantuan portobello mushroom ($8.50) brushed with spiced-up Chinese oyster sauce and baked firm with a topping of crisp-edged sweet onions, picante pasilla chiles, and melted garlic-jack cheese? Both my tablemates fell head over heels for this rich, peppery creation, while I grew increasingly enamored of a savory saffron risotto cake ($8.50), which had the crunchy exterior and creamy interior of those Rice Krispies-and-marshmallow concoctions Mom used to bake. At the center of the cake was a streak of sweet, mild Gorgonzola cheese with sauteed shiitake strips and bits of small, sweet tomatoes -- probably toybox, judging by the size and flavor, though the darkness precluded precise visual identification of ingredients.
But in a salad of sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella ($7.25), an inferior variety of love apple tasted pale and wan alongside bland cheese. The lyrical basil-strewn balsamic vinaigrette just wasted its song.
Between courses, we enjoyed the assorted breads, delivered daily from a nearby bakery -- a soft rosemary baguette, another baguette redolent of resinous aniseed, and a sweet black rye dotted with oats. My beer-drinking companion was impressed to learn that all the brews are on tap -- a serious list of 11 including Spaten Pilsener, Newcastle, and intensely wheaty Lagunitas India Pale Ale. The wine list offers mainly reasonably priced ($20-30) "little" wines from California, France, and Australia, with one wine per variety available by the glass. Frustratingly, despite the seafood-rich dinner menu, there are approximately three times as many reds as whites. Whatever its color, any wine that tries to put on airs here is swiftly deflated when it's served in sturdy, stemless round juice goblets.
Without our having to ask, our droll, charming server also brought tall glasses of ice water with lemon slices. Attentive but not pesky, friendly but not overfamiliar, he kept the kitchen so closely matched to our pace that we never went hungry nor felt rushed; at both meals he displayed a professionalism well beyond expectations for so informal a setting.
On a return visit, a huge salad of smoked trout ($9) had a vibrant raspberry-lemon vinaigrette that moistened the fish chunks (smoked trout is often dry) and united the accompanying mass of mixed greenery, red peppers, fennel, toasted walnuts, and generous dabs of creamy goat cheese. Bowing to professional duty I reluctantly ordered the Dungeness crab cakes ($9). Surprisingly, they were among the best restaurant crab cakes I've had recently. Crisp outside, creamy inside, with minimal breading and no horrible "creative" perversions, they resembled those objects of my shameful lust, Mrs. Paul's Devilled Crab Cakes. They weren't as highly seasoned as Mrs. Paul's, but then the menu didn't call them "devilled" -- too bad, since I was feeling a little impish that evening. The whole-grain mustard sauce pooled beneath them, however, packed a truly satanic quantity of salt.
An entree of penne ($11.25) was dressed with vodka, tomatoes, and arugula in a light cream sauce. The pasta gained greatly from being cooked enough -- not fashionably "al dente" but tender and light-textured without subsiding into mushiness. The sauce was gentle, the vodka and arugula playing discreet supporting roles. The menu also lists chili flakes; we didn't taste or, of course, see any. A topping of freshly shredded Parmesan melted into the sauce as we ate.
A fiercer tomato sauce on prawns "Provincial"-style (as the menu spells Provencal) served over linguine ($13.75) started out gently, too, but changed as as we ate it -- assorted cured black olives gradually surrendered their flavors into the sauce, and near the bottom of the bowl we broached a militant caper zone. Instead of being cooked in the sauce, the prawns were separately sauteed, emerging tender and buttery with their own flavor intact.
Each evening there are a couple of specials -- usually a fish and a meat. One night's fish was seared tombo tuna ($16.75); the sushi-quality hunk of dark red tuna was soft, succulent, "gray-seared," and topped with fresh salsa -- a welcome change from the cliche peppering/blackening treatment often accorded it. Less riveting was another evening's platter of sea bass and swordfish ($16) with a white wine "arugula pesto." The fishes (one of them naturally moist, the other lean and tight-grained) danced an interesting duet, but the sauce's arugula was tamed to wimpiness.
Non-pasta entrees come with sauteed seasonal vegetables (very underdone one night, crisp-tender the next time) and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. The garlic flavor is just a pleasant hint, not overkill, while the spuds are evidently Yukon Golds, as evidenced by tasty bits of thin potato-skin and a slightly glutinous texture.
Another special was a shank of lamb with chanterelle mushrooms and a cabernet demiglace. I'm always hungry for wild mushrooms, but when an order of the shank landed at a neighboring table, I realized I wasn't that hungry -- the joint, as the witty waiter said, looked the size of Mark McGwire's arm. Another evening's lamb special was merely generous within reason: A grilled lamb steak ($16.50) with a cabernet and rosemary sauce was well-seared outside, pink inside, tender and juicy at every bite. The meat's quality was high enough to set me flicking my lighter to read the fine print on the bottom of the menu, which discloses that organic meats and produce are used when available. Similar preparations of lamb sirloin and of New York steak are available from the regular menu at slightly lower prices.
Some of the desserts are the usual Bay Area suspects -- assorted flavors of store-bought sorbet, yet another creme brulee. A couple are less common: Champagne zabaglione (a whipped stove-top custard of egg yolks, sugar, and wine), its pale foam punctuated by crimson raspberries, was rarefied in texture and flavor -- a puff of sweetened air to go with your coffee. Boudino is its opposite, a fix for a major attack of chocoholism. Fresh from the oven in a custard cup, its exterior was a thin dark-chocolate crust, containing a seemingly bottomless pool of rich dark-chocolate lava that held, at its heart, a daub of tart creme frache. Overwhelmed, I passed it to my tablemates, lighted a cigarette, and watched the moon tick across the sky above the glowing propane cylinder.
It's true: Food really does taste better outdoors.