A Little Night Music

Cole Valley's Zazie is a simple cafe by day, a chic bistro after sunset

A harpist and a guitarist plucked their way through a Bach fugue — a musical double helix, crisply baroque — as we were seated one Sunday evening at Zazie. The live music at many dinner places these days is too often deafening — it's like having a meal at the end of a runway. Zazie is so small that a healthy jazz ensemble would blow out all the windows; but the harp, while looking gargantuan, sounded with a muted precision that made it possible for us to talk while still absorbing the music.

If Bach is clear and cool, like an alpine brook, Zazie is considerably warmer. (The Mystery Writer, in fact, was to describe its decor at lunch several days later as “aggressively cheerful.”) Certainly the pale apricot walls, rich wood-topped tables, high ceilings, and rear garden (temptingly glimpsed at the end of a long corridor) contribute to a stylish Provençal rusticity that reminded me immediately of the Rooster, on Valencia. The main difference is that Zazie is deep and narrow: the restaurant equivalent of a galley kitchen. I felt that if I tipped my chair back I'd find myself leaning against the far wall, where the harpist sat with her celestial instrument.

Like Noe Valley, Cole Valley hasn't had much of a dining scene until recently, despite a young and affluent population. The big draw at the moment is Eos, the fusion palace just up the block. Zazie, meanwhile, is the Firefly of the district — smaller, spiffy rather than eclectically homey, the menu's French influences more overt but still passed through the same California filter.

The roasted mushrooms ($3.95) for instance — a plateful of earthy brown champignons — looked like the sort of dish Kafka might have eaten on a gray winter's day: heavy, brooding, substantial, lacking nuance. But the kitchen finished the mushrooms with a nifty flourish of lemon and cayenne, which gave them a sly heat and a bright Mediterranean tang of citrus. If we'd eaten them with our eyes closed, we would never have guessed they were the somber color of shoe leather.

Late summer is the time of tomatoes, and the kitchen attempted to cash in with a classic tomato-mozzarella salad ($5.95). The tomatoes were fine — fat slices of deep red, juicy fruit simply arrayed on a white plate, dressed with virgin olive oil and a few sprigs of basil. But the accompanying discs of mozzarella were unappealingly rubbery and too big; they were nearly the size of the tomato slices. If the point of the salad was to feature vine-ripened tomatoes, then less — and better — mozzarella would have done the trick.

Main courses skillfully continued the California theme. I thought there was a little too much macaroni in the seafood pasta ($12.95) — an assemblage of tricolor rotini (red, white, and green) tossed with chunks of sauteed salmon and rock cod, gorgeously juicy mussels, and julienned strips of red and green pepper. A sauce of white wine and garlic managed not to disappear under the weight of all that pasta and seafood, but it would have been better balanced with less starch.

The versatile (if locally out of season) crab filled up the green pillows of the artichoke-and-crab ravioli ($9.95) with its distinctive marine sweetness. Like crab, artichoke is a local delicacy that's a pain in the ass to eat in its natural form; but trimmed and shredded, it gave a rich, woody harmony to the crab's main melody. A puddle of bright red tomato sauce on the side created a holly-and-ivy color scheme for the plate — a hint of Christmas in August.

Our polite and efficient server assured me that the coconut gelato ($4.95) was house-made. Generally that means an intensity of flavor and a restrained sweetness unmatched by commercial preparations, but here the subtle flavor of the coco-nut was overwhelmed by a hailstorm of rum-soaked raisins whose cold, dense fumes seemed flammable.

The chocolate kirsch charlotte ($4.95) — a ladyfinger cake layered with chocolate and drizzled with cherry brandy — was better balanced, neither too sweet nor too heavy, the cake itself spongy rather than soggy.

Zazie at noontime, with a wash of daylight making the exposed-brick wall glow, did not seem entirely suitable to the (or any) Mystery Writer, in whose work so much that's important happens at night or in the dark. He blinked at the sunny walls, the glass, and the patio to the rear and ordered (as did I) a cup of carrot-fennel soup ($2.95), which turned out to be a rich potage with just the faintest suggestion of anise.

We cheered ourselves up with the usual doomsday talk about the travails of literary publishing and the end of the written word in a world wired up for audiovisual pleasures. (He's gloomier than I am; I agree, maybe naively, with John Updike that “the written word and the bound book have charms so inescapable that somebody will always love them.”) The roasted Yukon Gold potatoes ($2.95) were good, although the little tub of aioli served with them was woefully inadequate and soon exhausted, leaving us with a plate of plain potatoes: a depressing, impoverished prospect.

The meat in the roast-pork sandwich ($5.95) was well-done but still tasty, and accented by pear slices that made a nice match with the pork's deep sweetness. The bread — a crusty country loaf — would have made good toast, but it was too thick and chewy for a proper sandwich, and the crust amounted to a kind of obstacle course.

Also utterly cooked through was the grilled tuna in the salade nicoise ($7.50), a large bed of greens laced with peppers, tomatoes, and anchovies, an optional flourish that seemed to give pleasure equally to the Mystery Writer and to our server. She clearly regarded the salty little fish as essential to a proper salade nicoise.

Zazie has a kind of split personality: a simple neighborhood cafe by day, a chic bistro by night, when, amid the champagne sounds of live music, the menu steps up toward the sublime. Then it's worth the trip.

Zazie, at 941 Cole, serves breakfast daily 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. There's a weekend brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner is served Monday through Thursday from 6 to 9:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 6 until 10 p.m. On Sunday evening Zazie serves light suppers and tapas from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Call 564-5332.

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