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That Zincing Feeling 

Le Zinc

Wednesday, Feb 20 2002
My earliest memories of classic French cuisine go back to when I was about 6. My father, quite the gourmet, used to spend hours in the kitchen making coq au vin, fish in white wine sauce, chicken Florentine, and beef with burgundy. He even made cassoulet once, which seemed to take about a week. To be honest, I wasn't that impressed with the final product. In fact, I didn't like any of my father's French food -- at the age of 6, my perfect meal would have been pizza, dill pickles, and (on a special occasion) Michelob -- but I still had a certain reverence for the cuisine. I could have told you that Chez Paul was the fanciest restaurant in our town (Chicago), and that, at the time, French cooking represented the pinnacle of culinary achievement in America. Well, maybe I wouldn't have used those exact words.

A lot has changed during the past quarter-century. French technique is still the foundation for most high-end fare, but it's no longer a surprise to find a Moroccan tagine on a New American menu or Chinese-style roasted duck on a California one. Even my father has expanded his repertoire -- the last time he cooked for me, we had a pair of simple stir-fries -- and my own tastes now run from Afghan to Yucatecan and everything in between. I've learned to appreciate the French classics, but they can seem a bit tired.

This is not to say that classic French cuisine is dead: In fact, bisques and bordelaise sauce will likely outlast us all. It's just that old-school French cooking feels like an art whose time has passed -- as when you try to digest, say, zucchini simmered in cream sauce for so long you wonder if the chef did the mise en place during a previous life. It's a leaden, unpleasant sensation. Unfortunately, the same feeling came over me at Le Zinc, an otherwise charming bistro on 24th Street in Noe Valley. It was hard to like anything about the place: The food was too heavy, the prices were too steep, and creativity was in short supply. Worst of all, the execution was sometimes downright abominable.

Still, I don't think Le Zinc is a lost cause. The place seems like a good fit for the neighborhood, and it was packed to capacity when my friend Amy and I arrived at 8:30 on a Saturday night. The décor has a sort of austere dignity to it: a dark, molded wood bar with a gray zinc top, mahogany tables, a basket near the kitchen filled with slender baguettes. Low ceilings result in a thunderous din, but the restaurant has a sophisticated, pleasantly casual feel. The wine list is extensive for a small eatery -- 70 bottles, almost exclusively French ($18-150), with 30 choices by the glass or carafe. The Château Bonnet Bordeaux was a smooth, well-rounded, voluptuous sip, though the Marc Brédif chinon was a tad flat. If you want something different, skip the Kir Imperial -- a version of the classic Kir Royale that tastes like raspberry soda -- in favor of the Monaco, a tart, refreshing blend of beer, pomegranate syrup, and lemonade.

Now let's get down to the unpleasantness. Though there's nothing unusual about a new restaurant with a few rough edges, Le Zinc seems to be far behind the curve. For example, when we ordered our Monaco at the bar, the bartender had disappeared, neither the host nor the manager knew how to make one, and, after some delay, an older gent in chef's garb eventually mixed the drink. Service was equally slow once we were seated, and the place had run out of water glasses (we drank it out of stemware). I couldn't fault the amuse-bouche (free appetizer) -- a chunky, country-style pork pâté and a creamier, lighter chicken version, served with bread and cornichons -- other than to feel it was a predictable way to start.

I could say the same about many of the choices on the rather uninspired menu: trout amandine, braised veal, and beef tenderloin with pepper sauce and (you'll never guess) frites. The duck carpaccio appetizer sounded promising, but it was sold out. Our second choice, roasted butternut squash soup, was served at room temperature, for no apparent reason. Grease oozed from the emulsion as we ate it. A salad of scallops and mixed greens was even more disappointing. Three perfectly seared scallops had buttery, golden crusts, giving way to silky interiors, but the greens sagged with a flavorless citrus vinaigrette and the dish lacked cohesiveness. For $10, it would have been a mediocre plate, but at $14 it was an outrage.

The best dish we tried -- and the only one I can recommend -- was an entree of pan-roasted Atlantic cod. Flaky, delicate flesh came with an earthy, subtle walnut sauce and pockets of angel hair pasta tossed with zucchini and butter. Our second entree, cassoulet, treated us less well. The dish reeked of fat and consisted of pork, two kinds of sausage, and an adequate duck confit over bland, grainy white beans that may well have been parboiled and added at the last minute.

Since I'd been composing cheese plates at home that week (it's a marvelous way to snack), I figured Le Zinc's version would provide inspiration. Instead, it was a lesson in how not to proceed. Our waiter didn't bother to identify the cheeses (a fairly standard practice), and the portion was absurdly large. We had two ample wedges of soft, brielike cheese; two slices of pale, rich, semifirm cheese; and a minibrick of blue, plus a smattering of walnuts, dryish walnut bread, and a pinch of bitter microgreens. We barely finished a third of the plate, and would have given kingdoms for a few grapes to balance out the richness.

Our lone dessert, the pavlova, was an architecturally ambitious tower of meringue, whipped cream, and sorbet -- a drawback in that the thing keeled over as our waiter set it on the table. He whisked it away and returned with another, which stayed upright for about 15 seconds. The meringue was as light as clouds, and the sorbets -- creamy coconut and bright mango -- tasted splendid, but the poorly conceived plating made for a dessert I wouldn't order again.

Breakfast another day wasn't much better. A croissant with butter and jam was overpriced at $2.75, especially since it wasn't house-made. The Viennois -- coffee or hot cocoa topped with sweet, dense chantilly -- was rich enough to be served as a dessert. Beyond that, the menu was pretty much an egg thing. My choice, eggs Norvégien, was essentially a Benedict served with slightly fishy smoked salmon and a side of Denny's-style fried potato cubes. I'd rather have breakfast at Herb's Fine Food, down the street.

That cooking has come a long way in this country is all the more reason to be disappointed with the retrograde fare at Le Zinc. With a lot of work, the place could shine, but for now, baby has a long way to go.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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