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Using Their Noodles

ZAO restaurant
Christopher Gardner

ZAO Meditations: Austere yet artsy decor gives ZAO restaurant a contemporary Zen flavor.

Entrepreneurs from ZAO restaurant put a hip spin on an ancient culinary artform

By Christina Waters

LOTS OF hard, polished surfaces and soft, sensuous culinary ingredients make ZAO--the contempo noodle palace recently unveiled on University Avenue--a neo­Pac Rim toy shop. Huge textile banners printed with wild animals in playfully urban settings line the poured concrete walls of the noodle bar. The place first caught my attention a few weeks ago when I passed the shop, which glows seductively with its front wall open to the street. A young woman, sitting with her sweetie over a steaming bowl of udon, crooned loudly enough for me to hear: "These are sooooooo good." I stopped and peered into her bowl. She held it up for me to admire. I grabbed a menu and made a mental note to return.

Locating their concept somewhere in a generic Asian landscape full of mythic koans like "A bowl of noodles is a snapshot of the universe," as well as lots of Japanese soba, Thai bean threads and Chinese chow fun, the ZAO folks take their playful approach rather seriously. A long, bistro-style banquette is equipped with spiffy blond cafe tables, each stocked with lots of condiments--soy sauce, salt and pepper grinders, hot chile paste, shakers of red peppers and sesame seeds. Huge wooden spoons and chopsticks greet you as you sit down, and everything arrives in beautifully glazed stoneware bowls created for ZAO by talented potters in Zanesville, Ohio. A whole line of ZAO wear is available for sale, from caps to T-shirts--very Palo Alto.

With a concept as streamlined as noodles--cool noodles, sautéed noodles, noodles in broth and noodle appetizers--the food needs to be bold. What we found was some hot stuff, and some lackluster items too.

Good service, intriguing good looks and an inventive listing of drinks (from Ravenswood Zinfandel to cold sake, Vietnamese coffee, San Pellegrino and Genmaicha toasted rice tea) give ZAO an immediate advantage. Messy, primal food--ah, noodles. So playful is this style of eating--with lots of slurping, probing and stirring--that it would be pretty hard to have a lover's quarrel at ZAO.

Wilting in the heat of May, we gratefully sipped ice-cold Amstel Light beers ($3.50) while sampling our appetizers. Big, crisp, fried noodle cakes studded with moist crab ($4.95) arrived with emerald strands of scallion and a tart sauce of tamarind and red peppers. I found this dish wonderfully satisfying and wished for as much flavor in a second appetizer of delicate (read: wimpy) steamed dumplings ($5.25). The pretty, perfectly steamed wontons arrived with a cilantro-chile dipping sauce, which was fine, though the filling of allegedly pickled vegetables--diced carrots, squash, cabbage, cucumber and a dusting of black sesame seeds--fell flat.

An entrée of sesame-crusted fresh salmon ($7.75), served on buckwheat soba noodles, absolutely thrilled us. The filet was crusted with toasted sesame seeds, and each bite fell apart in a delicious way into a ginger miso broth containing bits of shiitake mushroom, cabbage and baby spinach. A bit pricy for a noodle shop, it's true--and that might be a conceptual problem for ZAO: whether to go upscale or drop prices and appeal to a wider audience.

An entrée of flash-fried tofu triangles--like a creamy pudding inside--arrived on top of noodles in a flavorful miso­ Thai basil broth ($5.95). The other dish didn't work as well for us: sake-steamed clams on bean thread noodles so long (three feet!) as to be non-negotiable, and the weakest broth this side of plain H2O.

Warm banana spring rolls on a bed of ripe mango purée ($4.50) made for a dessert worth the entire visit--as sensuous as, well, a bowl of noodles.


ZAO

Address: 261 University Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 415/328-1988
Hours: 11:30am­10pm daily
Cuisine: Noodles; Asian
Price: Moderate
Ambiance: Pac Rim industrial
Service: Right on top of things
Carryout: 415/328-1865


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From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of Metro

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