There was general consternation among fans of the popular spot Myth when it was sold and chef Sean O'Brien left the restaurant, which did not survive his departure by many months. O'Brien and his wife, Patricia, have now opened a new place, Zinnia, just a few blocks away in the space that has previously housed Cypress Club, 500 Jackson, and Scott Howard. Fans of Myth will recognize signature dishes from its menu, wherein O'Brien combined multicultural ingredients using French techniques. But at Myth, he was conspicuously on display in a trademark open kitchen, visible from all over the noisy, often-frenetic restaurant. Here he's operating behind the scenes.
Zinnia feels much calmer, much less of a "hot restaurant," at least at a midweek dinner. There's a long bar on the left as you enter, and a large dining room down a few steps, separated by a wrought-iron divider from a few upholstered booths along the windows overlooking Jackson. The decor seems muted: There are no overt references to the flower of the title, even in the dramatic towering floral bouquets, unless the stylized circles on the green fabric of the booths are meant to represent them. The most striking design element is the overscaled lighting fixture over the main dining room, made up of three huge striped drum shades.
The emphasis at Zinnia is on the food, which is of the multicultural, multi-ingredient variety known as New American. I'm not entirely a fan of all of O'Brien's tricks, one of which is setting ingredients I'd like to remain crisp in a sauce or broth that quickly renders them soggy. That happened with the otherwise tasty seared sweetbreads ($12) in a sticky sherry vinegar sauce with smoky bits of bacon, texturally punched up with breadcrumbs and short lengths of haricots verts. I was less enamored of the escargots, which were tightly bandaged in salty prosciutto ($12), turning them into hard little bundles, set onto puddles of peppery rouille. The best part of the dish was its central salad, long ribbons of fennel with mâche leaves in a bright vinaigrette.
The best starter was the gently poached jidori (free-range chicken) egg ($11), set atop a chicken hash carefully sautéed until it was edged with crusty bits, surrounded by an extravagant helping of tender, pale beechwood mushrooms. The kicker was a thin, crackerlike object, placed upright like a flag, which turned out to be wonderful salty, fatty fried chicken skin, offering a delicious punchy counterpoint to the soft egg with its bright-yellow runny yolk. It would be a perfect brunch dish.
O'Brien's three tempting pastas and risottos are available in two sizes and prices. We thought hard about the seared potato gnocchi (a signature dish at Myth), but couldn't resist the fresh rigatoni ($12/$18), the still-resilient pasta tubes paired with shaggy maitake mushrooms in a thin but rich-tasting marsala-flavored foie gras cream. In contrast to Coco Chanel's tenet of dress, which was to take off one accessory before leaving the house, we thought this dish needed a little something added. Salt improved it.
The main courses made us quite happy. The smaller portion of the seared Tasmanian salmon ($15/$26) was a perfect amount. The sweet, tender pink flesh with crunchy thin skin was set atop a baby yellow and orange carrot with a couple of slightly underdone baby turnips and two lengths of leeks in a delicious saffron sauce. I didn't like the strangely shaped bowl it came in, on which was impossible to balance knife and fork between bites. Everything from the high-quality olive oil poured for the Acme pain d'epi (butter was also brought when we asked for it) to the ketchup for the french fries came in a differently-shaped white china dish. At one point I counted a dozen dishes on our table, with the only repetition in the three bread plates. My least favorite, frequently seen now around town, is a shallow soup bowl with an extrawide rim, used for serving main courses.
The Zinnia version of the bowl housed four large chunks of buttery rare veal loin ($29), wrapped in pancetta (to much better effect than the prosciutto-wrapped snails), set atop leeks, fava beans, and the tiniest cauliflower buds — a lovely combination — with a panisse (chickpea pancake) that quickly grew soggy in what the menu called a truffle sauce but what I would call a broth, whose whiff of truffle was rather elusive. Still, all the vegetables in both these dishes were the finest primeurs (baby spring vegetables) imaginable. We also appreciated that the well-chosen wines by the glass were available in two sizes and prices.
The grilled New York steak ($28), a massive and quite tough, but flavorful, hunk of meat, came in a green peppercorn sauce, with jammy caramelized onions and a heap of skin-on Kennebec fries. The menu is relatively short: three fish and six meat main courses (including a grilled ground chuck and chorizo burger, $14), after nine starters and three pastas. You can start with the small versions of the pasta and fish dishes.
The multi-item chocolate dessert ($9) was divine: a dense dark chocolate parfait set atop a thin layer of chocolate almond cake, paired with an egg-shaped ball of chocolate sorbet. Also offered was a dish new to us, a caramel chiboust ($9), which turned out to be a combination of pastry cream and whipped cream set on its own little round of cake and delicately brûléed in the oven. The result was a fragile, shaky custard. The whole assortment was surrounded by a thin stripe (we would have liked more) of spiced caramel sauce and topped with a lacy chocolate cookie. The fromage blanc mousse ($9), set on its own thin layer of almond cake and garnished with tart rhubarb confit and lightly cooked strawberries, finished a distant second. We were intrigued that four of the five cheeses on offer (three for $14, five for $18) were raw-milk cheeses, but decided to try them another time.
Myth was the very model of a hot S.F. restaurant, including its ear-splitting noisiness, but shhh: We prefer the quieter Zinnia.