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Worth a Detour 

Zax Tavern

Wednesday, Mar 12 2003
Without knowing a lot more about the French restaurateur Bernard Loiseau, it seems reckless to ascribe his recent suicide to the seemingly negligible change in his restaurant La Côte d'Or's Gault-Millau rating from 19 (out of 20) to 17. Years ago another French restaurateur did famously commit suicide when his restaurant dropped to two stars from the coveted three in the Michelin guide, but Loiseau's Michelin rating remained unchanged in the new guide from the three stars it had held since 1991. The Michelin star system was created in 1926, but in those more innocent times, the stars (one star: a very good restaurant in its category; two: excellent cooking, worth a detour; three: exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey) were awarded largely on the basis of the restaurant's food. Only after many decades did restaurateurs feel the need to invest millions of dollars in interior decoration and fancy china, silver, and glassware to wrest that all-important third star from the guide's anonymous reviewers. A 1996 book, Burgundy Stars: A Year in the Life of a Great French Restaurant, relates how Loiseau secured a $3 million loan for exactly that purpose, partially predicated on the projected revenues that a third Michelin star would generate.

But, just as couture fashion shows are only the icing on the licensing cake of perfume, make-up, and ready-to-wear that makes the real money in fashion, a three-star restaurant isn't enough today. Bernard Loiseau felt obliged to open several restaurants in Paris (the Tantes Jeanne, Louise, et Marguerite), a boutique in Saulieu, a catering concern, a line of prepared foods, and an online shopping service. Eventually his business was listed on the French stock exchange as the Groupe Bernard Loiseau Art de Vivre, which now seems heavily ironic.

Certainly there are American chefs who've capitalized on their talents behind the stove to create empires -- multiple locations, restaurants bearing their names at different price points, prepared foods, books, television shows. (Such success, of course, generally means that the now happily branded chef is no longer to be found anywhere near his multiple stoves.) Wolfgang Puck is one example who springs to mind -- a cheerful, gifted Austrian chef whose dream of opening his own simple, red-checked-tablecloth bistro called Spago on the Sunset Strip after achieving some well-deserved fame for his cooking at Ma Maison has metastasized into Spagos in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Chicago, Palo Alto, and Maui; a half-dozen other "fine dining" establishments including Postrio in San Francisco and Las Vegas; 15 "casual dining" cafes; and about three dozen "Wolfgang Puck Express" fast-food locations across the country ("franchise opportunities available"). And he's got the requisite books, TV show, prepared soup and frozen pizza lines, and a divorce pending from his wife and business partner.

Here in San Francisco, market forces have created a different and possibly more sane trend in the restaurant world: places that voluntarily choose to simplify their menus and downsize their prices, such as Home (once JohnFrank). Last fall Zax, a highly regarded establishment tucked away on Taylor between North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf, went even further and moved across the bay to Berkeley, renaming itself Zax Tavern.

The menu is shorter, the dishes slightly less complicated, but the new dining rooms, easy to find on Telegraph, can welcome more than twice as many people as Zax did in San Francisco. My friend Cathy happily frequented Zax when she worked in the old neighborhood, often stopping in at the end of the day for a sophisticated bite and a glass of wine, so she was eager to join me for dinner at the new location. The block seems nondescript, which makes entering the urbane space and being greeted by a spill of golden light illuminating happy diners rather exciting. We were shown to a table in the long, narrow dining room, painted a warm yellow. She generously ceded the twice-baked goat cheese soufflé starter to me, having often enjoyed it herself in the past, and chose to begin with the grilled Florida gulf shrimp.

I'm a sucker for cheese soufflés, and this one was properly light and properly airy, and I liked the crisp bite of the chopped apple, celery, and fennel salad dressed with a cider vinaigrette that came with it, though I would have liked a goatier goat cheese tang. Cathy's dish was pinkly pretty, the plump shrimp perched on their own chopped salad of romaine, red onion, and radish, tartly dressed with red vinegar.

Our main courses arrived in big shallow white bowls: Cathy's contained a miraculously tender, rather charming lamb stew sided by crisp polenta, and mine had an entrancing, rather uncommon braise of chicken legs and thighs, a puree of cauliflower and potato, and a few sautéed greens. At first glance the quantities seemed modest, but at first taste it was clear that the kitchen's ambitions and abilities were not. I was charmed by the food: Everything was full of flavor, yet the overall impression I received was one of delicacy and careful control. I had the same thought with each bite I took of the two stews: I wanted more. I was being satisfied and led on at the same time.

The essential qualities I'd found present in everything I'd had here -- a lightness and delicacy of approach resulting in clear, true flavors -- continued through dessert: a slice of warm apple galette with caramel ice cream, and a lemon soufflé tart with vanilla ice cream. It's not unusual to find a warm apple galette or a lemon tart on local dessert menus, and it's also not unusual, alas, to receive rather boring (not to say pointless) versions of them. The ones we ate at Zax Tavern reminded us just how good they can be when taken seriously. We took them seriously enough to eat every crumb.

I'd surprised myself, in fact, by eating quite a bit more of everything I ordered than I usually do. (I'm rarely compelled to finish a dish.) And yet I felt pleasantly light and airy myself. In fact, my meal at Zax Tavern had an effect on me that reminded me of the way I feel when I exit a particularly well-directed movie: I felt converted to the worldview of its chef-owners, Mark Drazek and Barbara Mulas. I loved eating their food! I wanted to eat there again! I wanted to feel this way all the time! I was looking at the world through Zax-colored eyes.

I decided to induct my parents and their friends Blake and Herlinda into the cult of Zax. This time we stayed in the barroom, which seemed quieter than the adjacent dining room, despite its proximity to the open kitchen. The five of us managed to order nearly everything that I hadn't yet tried on the menu. The Zax formula held true: My heart might not turn over at the thought of steamed mussels with shallots, parsley, cream, and Pernod, but once Zax's version was in my mouth, my heart was won by the impossibly rich and creamy broth, the tiny sweet mussels, the subtle yet exciting seasoning. Things tasted better than you expected them to. A clever spoonful of cilantro cream added a layer of flavor to the curry butternut squash soup. The meaty, juicy, saucy Niman Ranch pork ribs, with bitey horseradish slaw, could have served as a light supper. My favorite first course was the warm duck liver salad, the soft livers and still-liquid yolk of the poached egg melting over the mustardy-dressed frisée lettuce full of chunks of smoky bacon: a voluptuous version of a divine dish.

Our pleasure continued through the two excellent fish dishes, intelligent, original combinations of flesh, starch, vegetables and sauce: pale, flaky Arctic char with nutty sesame rice, tatsoi salad, and shiitake mushroom vinaigrette; and meaty swordfish crusted with fennel, with creamy white beans, bitter broccoli rabe, and earthy kalamata olive vinaigrette. The thick Niman Ranch top sirloin was crusted with pepper and sided by a mountain of thin crisp shoestring potatoes, which I liked much better than the mealy oven-baked fries that came with my excellent Niman Ranch burger on a French baguette. The only disappointing dish was the massive but dry and rather tasteless Niman Ranch pork porterhouse.

Our desserts included an unctuous mocha pot de crème with barely sweetened, soft whipped cream, and a suave chocolate pavé with coffee ice cream and chocolate sauce. But my dessert exemplified for me the Zax Tavern experience: a tangerine sorbet that tasted, clearly, purely, singingly, of fresh sweet clean tangerine. Elegant. Simple. Convincing.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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