Last summer, some of you may remember, I fell quite in love with dinners on the backyard patio at Zare on Haight. Although in winter the Haight Street restaurant does serve dinner indoors, I decided to try a different Zare, in the Financial District.
The owners are brothers -- the downtown restaurant's chef/owner is Hoss Zare, while the Haight Street eatery belongs to big brother Saeed Zare, who taught young Hoss how to cook. The creative Mediterranean cuisine at both restaurants is a natural outgrowth of their backgrounds: They're Turkish-speaking Azerbaijanis from Tabriz (in northern Iran), the sons of a carpet exporter from the heart of the Oriental rug belt. Transplanted to San Francisco, instead of Persian carpets, the brothers excel at Persian lamb. (Among the favorite dishes at both restaurants is lamb sirloin in red wine sauce -- but more about that later.)
Both restaurants reflect the moods of their respective neighborhoods, while putting their neighborhoods in rare good moods. The downtown Zare is a little more buttoned-up, of course -- but in the Financial District's jungle of cutthroat chic, high prices, and jangled nerves, it's a civilized oasis in which you can relax over a delicious and affordable dinner. A small, attractive room with candles at every table and red velvet swags, it boasts a ship-style bronze-tiled ceiling and an open kitchen at the end of the room. Soft jazz and Celtic music plays on the sound system, gentling even the Wall Street-types at early dinners. As the evening lengthens, a more eclectic assortment of patrons filters in, T-shirts alternating with suits.
At our romantic corner table, we pored over the menu, which changes seasonally. Like its creator, Zare's bill of fare proves flexible and accommodating -- the kitchen will prepare off-menu dishes for vegetarians, and will accept other special requests if you call a few days ahead. Along with a la carte orders, the options include two fixed-price dinners. For normal appetites, the $39 prix fixe is a bargain, affording a choice of almost any appetizer ($9-15 a la carte), and any salad ($6-11), entree ($16-21), and dessert (circa $6). An extra $5 will buy the top-priced appetizer, an intriguing-sounding foie gras wrapped with smoked salmon in a port wine reduction.
A more elaborate prix fixe dinner, at $50, is the seven-course chef's tasting menu for a minimum of two people. Allegedly, these are half-size portions. Well, Jabba the Hut would consider them half-size. And the number of dishes increases with the number of diners sharing the tastings -- for example, when four people order this menu, they receive not seven but 14 different dishes -- so cool!
A flight of matching wines is $20 per person. For one or two people, most of the flight takes off from an ample selection of wines available by the glass ($5.50-13). The full list of about 100 wines includes selections from France, Italy, California, Spain, and Australia, ranging from $19 to $175 (for a 1990 Barbaresco), at a markup of about 225 percent of retail, with some especially interesting choices in the midrange -- for example, an unusual white Chateuneuf du Pape, Mont Redon 1995, for $40.
I love the chance to sample bites of a lot of different flavors, so we decided to sign up for the seven-round event with matching wines. The feast began with an off-menu presentation of irresistible mashed potato blini, whose hearty texture and oniony undertone were balanced by their topping of fine smoked salmon, soft-textured American black sturgeon caviar, and creme frache on the side. The dish's enjoyable accompaniment was a fruity Chateau Potelle 1996 Napa Sauvignon Blanc ($6 per glass/$22 per bottle).
Dungeness crab cakes ($11 a la carte), very lightly breaded outside, had no discernible bready filler: They tasted of pure, sweet crab meat mingling with a lively dice of both hot and bell peppers and crisp green onion tops; a tangy whole-grain mustard sauce proved a pleasing dip. The accompanying Clos Pegase '96 Chardonnay ($8/$30) was the perfect match, dry, sprightly, and oaky enough to face down the spice. Next, we heard the waiter tell the kitchen, "Fire two peasants," which had us worried -- but it was just smoked pheasant salad ($11), the smokiness of the poultry morsels permeating the sharp, lemony vinaigrette that dressed piquant greens and velvety walnuts. It was so refreshing, it almost jump-started our appetites again.
After each course our considerate server asked whether we wanted the next dish immediately or preferred to wait awhile. The little breather gave us a chance to appreciate the hospitable ambience.
Even the busser flashed a radiant smile whenever he refilled our water glasses, and Hoss Zare chatted with everyone, moving from table to table with the light step of an athlete (he played pro soccer as a youth). He remembered taking our phone reservation, and asked us whether our parking karma had been as good as he'd promised. (It had been.) A few minutes later he changed from his sweat suit into chef's whites and headed for the kitchen, where he co-presides with chef-de-cuisine Felix Acosta, formerly of Lulu.
Like some fabled fin de siecle banquet, our main dishes included both a fish course and a meat course. Chilean sea bass in spicy prawn sauce ($21), a perennial favorite on Zare's seasonal menus, had a crunchy crumb topping and sat on a bed of caramelized shredded leeks and baby spinach touched with dark sesame oil. Topping these three layers of flavor were a few tender prawns and a light aromatic sauce tasting of shrimp stock and subtle spices. A bright-flavored lemon-mint sorbet provided a palate-cleansing intermezzo, and then it was on to tender, rosy strips of lamb medallion cut from the rack (its a la carte counterpart, lamb sirloin with grilled polenta, is $18). The meat wore a peppery reduced red wine sauce infused with rosemary and a jolt of white truffle oil, and came with a risotto cake enlivened with multicolored diced bell peppers.
At this point, we knew we'd never reach the end of the marathon unless we took a bus to the finish line -- that is, a takeout box for most of the lamb, which was far too good to leave. "I don't like sending people home hungry," Hoss told me later, understating the case. We still had to face dessert (all are $5.50-6): The delicate crust of a smashing chocolate souffle concealed a molten, fudgy bittersweet core. And there was a classic creme brulee with an expertly crackly topping. With these came the final leg of the wine flight -- a light, crisp Moscato D'Asti, with enough acidity to anchor its faint sweetness.
A couple of days later, I took another look at the menu I'd brought home, and actually got hungry again, noticing a half-dozen enticing items we hadn't tried -- Chardonnay-marinated Dungeness crab with linguine and prawns, to name just one. I'm sure these dishes are just as dazzling as those we did eat, and we will have another chance. After enjoying the Haight Zare in summer and the downtown Zare in winter, with the next change of seasons we'll be eating one of the brothers' fine cooking in yet another neighborhood: On the first day of spring, Hoss plans to open Bistro Zare on Polk Street. I can hardly wait.