This is an updated repost of an article a few years back. Sadly, the amazing Judy Rodgers, Zuni Café Chef/Owner and James Beard award-winning chef passed away recently. She had an amazing following and some of the most simple yet innovative food around.
Zuni Cafe Brick Oven [/caption]Zuni Cafe is Dave’s San Francisco restaurant in the city. He loves Judy Rodger’s brick-oven roasted chicken – served for two and now costing a whopping $48. It is, honestly, the best chicken in any restaurant ever and wins that acclaim nationally. Dave doesn’t care whether I share or not. He’s willing to bring the leftovers home.
We had a drink at the copper-topped bar. There are no seats at the bar – everyone stands. It looks out to busy Market Street. Another reason to love Zuni beyond its food is its eclectic clientele. People watching is at its prime at Zuni Cafe.
We sat downstairs near the kitchen. The quirky layout of the restaurant has tons of nooks and crannies. We sat at the end of a bench area where the opposite seat had no backrest. We immediately ordered the chicken. It takes 45 minutes to prepare. See the brick oven below in which it is roasted.
Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle ranks Zuni Cafe’s Caesar Salad ($10) as one of the six best in the bay area. We love it and shared an order. It’s a very pungent dressing, probably because of the vinegar AND lemon juice. I have Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook and looked up the recipes of the dishes we enjoyed when we got home. Rodgers’ cookbook is a masterpiece, a James Beard award winner, with lots of stories about her experiences and the ingredients she uses. However, it is not a cookbook for amateurs. The recipes are long and complicated for the most part.
I ordered the house-cured anchovies with celery, Parmesan and coquillo olives ($8.25). I’ve never been a fan of anchovies, but they, along with mackerel, are getting huge press because of their healthiness and their sustainability. So, I decided to try. After all, this was a blow-it day to top most of them!! These were delicious, and the presentation impressive. The anchovies are translucent and simply wonderful – no fishy taste that I expected. Cracked pepper offsets the white of the fish, shaved celery and the cheese along with the olives. Don’t put too much Parmesan with the anchovy. It drowns out its subtle taste. This recipe is also in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and it is on my list to try. In fact, I believe most of what the restaurant cooks can be found in the cookbook.
I ordered the house-ground grass-fed beef hamburger on grilled rosemary focaccia with aioli and Zuni pickles ($15). I added Roth’s Grand Cru Reserve Gruyere cheese (+$1.75). The burger was perfectly cooked and very tasty. I’m not usually a fan of grass-fed beef as I find it gamey tasting. The excellent waiter, Nathan, commented that it is a matter of taste and that Canadians feel the exact opposite as grass-fed vs. corn-fed beef is their staple. Anyway, yum! We both enjoyed this.
I don’t know what it is about Zuni Café’s Roasted Chicken for two with warm Tuscan-style bread salad ($48). Dave tells me to be cautious about using the word ‘best’ as other efforts make it hard to top, but this chicken is simply the best. It takes 45 minutes in their wood-fired brick oven. It is tender and juicy with a mildly crispy skin. The bread salad is mostly bread with dried currents and pine nuts and a bit of the freshest greens they can find. On this occasion, it was arugula. There’s crunchy bits of bread and pine nuts, but you know darn well that the bread is enjoying mopping up the chicken’s juices to make it even more delectable.
The shoestring fried potatoes at Zuni are great. It’s amazing how they can get such small sticks of potato to be crisp on the outside and still soft on the inside. Even though there’s bread salad with the chicken, we never miss the shoestring potatoes.
Zuni Cafe has an extensive wine list and wines by the glass. I noticed the Zuni 2008 Pinot Noir ($12 by the glass and $60 by the bottle) at the bar. The bartender told us that Mt. Eden makes a Pinot Noir for the restaurant annually. We had a sip of that and a taste of the Bodegas Hermanos Pecina Rioja Reserva 2000 Tempranillo, and the Tempranillo ($12 by the glass and $60 by the bottle) won out. (These wines are not on the wine list; rather they are on the back of the menu listed as wines by the glass. Robert Parker would object, but I like to call Tempranillo a Spanish Chianti. This one was lighter in color than I’m used to. It was mild and light and very drinkable with the chicken and hamburger.
We were absolutely stuffed so we didn’t even look at the dessert menu. We ordered up double espressos and a plate of Zuni’s marvelous biscotti. They are smaller than most you see, crunchy and flavorful – a great addition to the espresso.
Food, service and ambience at Zuni rate top scores. Since we walked the 3.5 miles from our house to Zuni AND since we imbibed more than the usual lunch, we opted to take a cab home and experienced the most delightful cab driver. All in all, a great day and a great meal at Zuni!!
Zuni Cafe Wrap-Up
- Ridiculously good chicken
- Great atmoshpere
- Great service
- Yadayada - parking is difficult
- Reservations are hard to come by