Zinc Wine Bar and Bistro
A tale of two restaurants
It was the best of meals, it was the worst of meals … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. OK, so maybe that’s a little on the dramatic side, but in many ways dining at Zinc brought to mind the contrasts Dickens was so fond of fictionalizing, so read this with a British accent.
For starters, Maren Tarro and I, two very different critics, teamed up on two occasions to explore this Nob Hill hot spot, which harbors an upstairs Bistro and the less formal Cellar Wine Bar down below. While we rarely see eye-to-eye—I'm about three feet shorter than Maren—on this occasion we couldn’t be more on the same page. Some dining companions also brought a bourgeois viewpoint to the meal.
Seated in the dining room, the lighting and décor were right on target for an upscale establishment. Lots of dark wood and a beautiful bar offered a feeling of class and the finer things in life. Unfortunately, the server’s side stations were in full view, and the open kitchen was loaded with eyesores like piles of towels and Lexan tubs full of ingredients. The cooks and servers leaned casually on any available space while they waited for orders to come in. The sound of sauté pans and the latest gossip detracted from the otherwise genteel atmosphere.
Our server was a little rough around the edges, but more than knowledgeable of the dinner menu and wine list, and quick to offer suggestions. Beginning with the featured wine list, he guided us into choosing a variety of whole and half glasses (at exactly half the cost of whole glasses) of red, white and dessert wines. All told, we had Stefano Massone Gavi Masera ($7 for a glass), Ravenswood Teldeschi Zinfandel ($10 a glass), Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay ($13 a glass), Carlos Basso Malbec ($7 a glass), Roessler Peregrine Pinot Noir ($13.50 a glass) and Far Niente Dolce Liquid Gold ($16 a glass). Each was served in its appropriate vessel with several accompanied by darling miniature carafes.
The Pinot Noir (our server told us Zinc is headed by the same family behind Roessler Cellars) was nicely tannic, smacked of overripe red berries and herbs, and had an intense finish. The Gavi was a beautiful, light straw-hued crowd-pleaser. With a pleasantly dry mouthfeel and the taste of crisp, exotic fruits like pineapple and passionfruit, it paired well with our forthcoming seafood and cold salads.
A tiny glass of Dolce was coveted from one end of the table to the other. The silken texture and honeyed sweetness of this late-harvest dessert wine was balanced nicely by a hint of tart, overripe pink grapefruit at the finish.
The appetizers proved to be at the zenith of Zinc’s menu. Crispy duck confit eggrolls ($9.50) with peanut-curry and chile-lime dipping sauces were packed with tender, moist duck meat. Likewise, the seared rare Ahi tuna ($11) was plated with tempura-fried shoestring vegetables on a bed of avocado, tatsoi (Asian rosette bok choy) and sprouts, and accompanied by a sesame-soy glaze and spicy mustard sauce.
When the entrées arrived, a line between the delectable and the derelict was evident.
The seared sea scallops ($23, served with a wild rice-cranberry pilaf and sautéed butternut squash and snow peas), which was finished with tarragon-crayfish beurre blanc, were enormously satisfying in both their size and flavor.
A grilled pork loin chop ($19, joined by brown butter-braised spinach, sweet and sour cabbage and Calvados apple cider sauce) was almost as well-received. The generous serving of chop was marred only by its pairing of herbed spaetzle—its egg noodles weren't simply cooked with butter, but fried beyond crispy.
Grilled lamb strip loin mignon ($23, accompanied by house-made gnocchi with gorgonzola cream, garden vegetable ragout and Rhone wine-thyme jus) also missed the mark by hitting the table a few shades beyond its promised medium rare. The gnocchi turned out to be the Jacobin in a roomful of aristocrats: This side got the attention of everyone. The potato dumplings were crisp on the outside outside, with seasoned insides that were warm as a fireplace in a winter château.
The dishes continued to smuggle in a few key flaws, despite the ample portions and excellent plating of each.
A flank steak au poivre ($18, with buttermilk mashed potatoes, fried mushrooms and onions) came as a nine-ounce steak crusted with black peppercorns, seared in a cast iron pan and served on pool of espagnole sauce (a dark, roux-based sauce with veal stock and tomato). Cooked medium-rare, the beef tasted less of peppercorns and more of the cast iron pan it was cooked in. This meat lacked the flavor of usually big-and-beefy flank steak. The lackluster mashed potatoes didn’t fare much better. A side of fried mushrooms and onions were the best part of the plate, although the sheer amount of them dwarfed the entire entrée.
Downstairs was dark as the Bastille. Ultra-dim lighting announced that we were indeed in a cellar--one with plump, cozy booths and brick walls adorned with deep red curtains. The feeling was intimate enough that the couple at the table next to us was making passionate love with their clothes on, and doing so with such fervent ardor we suspected they were off to the guillotine in the morning.
The wine special du jour (as it is every Wednesday) was a 20 percent discount on any bottle more than $25, which also came with a complimentary cheese plate. The server was well-versed with regard to both the selections and comparative merits of each (needless to say, it's a skill that's crucial for a bar specializing in wines). We chose a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape ($80), a rich Rhone with tough tannins, a spicy finish, and notes of leather and tobacco. Our dining companions particularly enjoyed this one, commenting that this was “a manly man” wine.
The cheese plate was almost perfect. A decorative marble slab featured crunchy flatbread, spicy mango chutney, a ramekin of mixed olives and five diminutive portions of cheese: fromager d’Affinois, Huntsman double Gloucester-
The d’Affinois was a fantastic choice for a semi-soft cheese, with its creamy, ivory center, edible rind and extremely high fat content. It had a light wild mushroom flavor that paired wonderfully with a bottle of Chateau St. Michelle Eroica Riesling ($40). This Riesling had a profound mineral taste that's fused with the strong aroma of citron and orange, which naturally takes a fatty cheese for balance.
Lamb chopper was a unique addition to the plate. It had a creamy, Holland-inspired gouda texture that could give a false impression that flavor is secondary. Don't be fooled. This sheep’s milk cheese has a complex organic fruitiness and lingering sweetness that complements a strong, tannic red.
Though tasty, the Boursin wasn't particularly inspiring, a country cousin of the finer cheeses on the plate. But the addition of the Vella perplexed us all. It wasn’t a bad cheese, but pepper jack complimented nothing on the plate or in our glasses. Had we ordered a strong, sweet Spanish red like a Rioja it might have worked.
Our final wine selection, Chandon Brut Classic ($32), rounded off the evening nicely with bubbles, dry but soft apple and hints of pear, and a fine, candied almond finish. By this time our companions were chipper and spouting French sonnets. Maybe it was the best of times, after all.