Zuni Cafe, San Francisco

Its 2-story triangular building stands proud on a diagonal alley off Market Street. Like a miniature version of NYC’s Flatiron building, with a west coast panache. Covered in wood-framed windows and adorned by a bright yellow awning under which a few sidewalk tables remind of the Parisian cafés on Boulevard Saint-Germain–even with the less glamorous view.

The space is as charming outside as it is inside. The yellow light filtered through the awning shines over a long copper bar and a series of polygonal tables cut like diamonds to fit perfectly in their settings.

In the center of the room, a large open kitchen built around a wood-burning oven that doubles as a fireplace. It’s like eating in a welcoming country home, in the heart of San Francisco.

The good-looking wait staff is efficient and heedful. Our waiter recognized us immediately remembering where we sat a week ago.

The crowd is a mix of young families and old-money San Francisco aristocracy sporting fancy Sunday attires. In the table next to ours, a forty-five thousand dollars Hermés Birkin bag laid carelessly on the floor, crocodile on ceramic tiles. Despite the modern vibe, Zuni is a well-known San Francisco institution, turning 30 this year.

The menu

Fine dining brunch is the product of a precocious breakfast that, deep inside, always wanted to be lunch. Zuni’s menu blurs the line between the two, bringing more sophisticated proteins to the morning fare. It’s not everywhere that you’ll find rabbit or braised chicken wings served with eggs. That said, the descriptions sometimes can be misleading; confirming what’s on each dish is something I’d recommend. The menu also includes fresh oysters and a good selection of main courses made in the wood-fired brick oven or on the grill; like their famous roasted chicken and house-ground burger.

The meal

Zuni serves coffee from La Brea and freshly squeezed orange juice. But judging by the surrounding sound of celery being chomped on, nothing beats the popularity of the Bloody Maries.

To start, Scone with house-made Satsuma plum preserves. Buttery yet light, Zuni’s scones rival the best in town.

Another great sweet dish is the French toast with huckleberry sauce, pistachios and mascarpone. Sauce and toppings vary each week but overall, the French toast here is on par with Foreign Cinema’s, second only to Canteen’s. Good as a main course, even better to share.

Among my favorite entrées, Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit salad with mixed chicories, a poached egg, carrots and mustard croûtons. Beyond tender cuts of rabbit loin, this salad comes topped with a juicy and flavorful rabbit sausage. The greens are lightly dressed and the croûtons pleasantly crunchy.

Eggs fried in rapini, house-made fennel sausage and chickpea ragout. Zuni’s fried eggs are also made differently every week, but the star of this dish is always the juicy, flavorful sausage.

On a second visit, a nice twist. Eggs fried in breadcrumbs; house-made fennel sausage and arugula salad. The breadcrumbs added a crunchy texture to the dish and, once again, the sausage was excellent.

Aileron Béarnaise with poached egg, sautéed chard and white beans. In this dish, the brined then braised chicken wings are tasty and very tender, coming easily off the bone. Served with carrots, roasted tomatoes and a flavorful jus.

And if you feel like dessert, try the “Piccola meringata” with Meyer lemon cream and wild huckleberry sauce. Preparations change weekly but the light (figuratively speaking) layering of meringue and whipped cream is definitely worth ordering.

Now here’s something that may outrage the loyal locavores that over the past 30 years learned to love this restaurant. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit; Zuni never made my favorites list. Prior to trying their brunch, I dined there 3 times and honestly, none of them left me craving for a next visit. Wait, before you delete me from your bookmarks, let me get this straight. The ambiance is great and I ate well. But with so much hype and recommendations, eating well never quite a memorable meal. And yes, I tried the famous burger, Caesar salad and roasted chicken. They are all good, no question about it. Good enough to make me like Zuni, but I wouldn’t call it love.

In short

In the morning light, this San Francisco institution offers a welcoming, bright atmosphere, whether you sit inside or outside. The Mediterranean menu has a good selection of seasonal, appetizing dishes. If your taste buds crave for the comfort of simply bacon and eggs, Zuni may not be the right place for you. But if you’re open to a more mature, sophisticated menu, you may feel right at home.

Zuni is at 1658 Market Street
Online reservations


Manger La Ville said...

Zuni is an institution kinda like chez panisse, but chez panisse is like Nirvana and Zuni is like Smashing Pumpkins, I know another metaphor. But it is an institution, one that has much more than good food, whether loved or liked. It holds memories for San Franciscans, many special occasions have been spent there. And her cookbook is one of the first I have owned and it was signed when I was about 10. For me, Judy Rodgers holds a very special place. All that said, I would never hold it against you that it isn't in your top. And to be honest, the food their is much more about memory than taste.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is that Zuni is very much like an old friend. You know what you'll get and the wine is always good.

It's love old-fashioned in my world.