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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Zazu Restaurant and Farm in Santa Rosa

Wine country is filled with superlative food and drink options.  Narrowing down the numerous deserving possibilities is by no means an easy feat.  Based on a number of factors (recommendations from friends, reviews, etc.) we eventually zeroed in on Zazu, a spot we were promised is passionate about fresh, local ingredients, and that delivers on quality.
   Upon arrival, we were kind of surprised by how disparate Zazu was from our expectations.  They might have a Michelin star, but there was absolutely nothing pretentious about this charming, comfortable space that looked like it was more someone's rustic farm than an upscale restaurant.  Immediately we started with a Damnation by Russian River Brewery, which my beer-a-holic companion informed me was not served in the proper glassware to highlight the beer's best features (Strike one).  The beer itself, a Belgian Strong Pale Ale, proved a superb and easy-drinking choice though, as it didn't overwhelm with a lingering hop flavor.  Instead it started slightly sweet and fruity with notes of banana and orange,and then developed into a more earthy flavor, with a coriander, clove, and lemon finality.

While we tried to decide what to order, our waitress (who quite frankly seemed a bit confused) brought out a bread basket.  After a day of wine tasting we were eager to give our bodies something to sop up the alcohol with.  The corn muffins looked tempting, so I grabbed one, and the little cup of butter.  Much to my chagrin, I was met with two of my biggest restaurant pet peeves...the butter was ROCK HARD, pretty tough to grab at all, and certainly not spreadable.  Also, if that weren't bad enough, the corn muffins tasted like they were made from a box of Jiffy, and there was no fresh corn in them whatsoever.  I was not impressed (Strike Two and Strike'll note I gave them far more chances than your average baseball game).  Ok, not the best start to the meal, but I will still hopeful the menu dishes would bowl me over.
After narrowing down our selections, we chose a couple of plates that piqued our interest. We had heard the black pig bacon wrapped dates and saba (a pressed grape syrup like an aged balsamic) were not to be missed.  Even though bacon wrapped dates are a dime a dozen, we decided to grab a quick nosh.  I have to say they literally melted in the mouth, and it was a nice change from the usual to omit cheese.  Simple and tasty, it was enough just as it was.  If we had not had more food coming, I would have wanted to order five of them!
The burrata and bruleed peach salad with black pig speck, backyard basil, and hazelnuts sounded like a light, and refreshing starter.  Presentation-wise it was beautiful, visually stimulating with lots of color.  However, I found myself a bit let down by the minimal servings of peach, only two tiny slices which weren't even very ripe (Strike four).  While I have personally enjoyed the other flavor combinations better (I actually really enjoyed a burrata and grilled stone fruit salad recently which benefited from charring a ripe piece of the fruit), you can't go wrong with some quality pork, and I did thoroughly enjoy the silken burrata and the contrast from the crunch of the hazelnuts.
The next choice seemed like a no brainer.  I love octopus, but it can be a bit tempestuous.  Accordingly, I've found that unless you're in a Greek fishing village where you know it was caught that day, or you're in a fine-dining establishment where they know what they're doing, it is often poorly prepared and rubbery.  Assuming Zazu would fall into the latter category of a fine-dining restaurant with the skill to tackle the sea creature, we ordered the seared octopus with confit potatoes, fennel, and basil chimichurri.  The plate arrived, looking stunning and bright with a welcoming air that suggested we should dig in immediately.  So I did just that, grabbing a sliver of octopus, and rolling around in the sprightly chimichurri.  Chew. Swallow.  Really?  Perhaps I should have thought twice about ordering seafood from a landlocked town, but wow, that was some seriously chewy octopus.  I know this dish has that tendency, but in my experience, really fresh and well-cooked octopus does not under any circumstances resemble chewing a tire (Strike Five).  The green however, were quite fresh, and while the sauce tasted more like a pesto than a chimichurri, it was quite tasty as well.
At this point, I was beginning to feel pretty despondent, worrying that we shouldn't have believed all the accolades.  I honestly wasn't even looking forward to trying the entrees, but we had already ordered.  Then something miraculous happened.  A complete 180 flip unlike anything I've ever experienced at a restaurant. Usually when the meal isn't off to the best start, there isn't much hope things will turn around.  Not to say it was terrible or that it wasn't very good, it just hadn't been the exciting, well-executed kind of cuisine I had been hoping for at such a well-regarded establishment.  Thankfully, in spite of some small missteps, my Liberty duck tostada arrived and changed everything.  Two towering mountains of shredded white meat in a delicate lime crema topped with smashed avocados.  It was heavenly!  Night and day different from the other courses, it was flavorful, succulent, and completely unforgettable.  I wish I could eat this on a weekly basis, so utterly delectable.
My dining partner experienced a similar revelation with his Duoc pork baby back ribs.  They were tender, smoky, sweet and savory.  Also, his dish came served with spicy greens and crispy fingerling "fries" all of which were impeccably cooked.
We weren't quite sure what to expect from dessert, but their options proved too tempting to resist.  Glad we did, this course also proved to highlight their strengths.  I had a lemon pie in a jar which was more of a brisk lemon custard topped with some kind of sweet crumble, strawberry preserves and a whipped pile of fluffy meringue that would make any camper envious with its even, golden sear.  Yum!  My dining partner got the affogato, a bowl of cardamom ice cream topped off with coffee.  It was also really excellent!
After a rocky start, I ended up leaving pretty happy with Zazu, reifying the notion that if at first you don't succeed with a dish or two, try, try again.  The evolution from mediocre to exceptional in the span of a short period is possible, and they really do have the savoir-faire to create some phenomenal combinations. If I lived closer, I'm sure I'd be a regular, especially coming by for their Pizza and Pinot nights!  As an additional side note on that scrumptious meat, the chefs and owners, Duskie Estes and John Stewart, raise the pigs and cure the meat that you receive, and it really is evident in the quality and flavor.  Make reservations and come check it out for yourself at:

Zazu Restaurant and Farm
3535 Guerneville Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95401-3927
(707) 523-4814
Zazu Restaurant & Farm on Urbanspoon

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