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[whitespace] Date Night

Zazu passes the roadhouse road test

By Heather Irwin

My personal ad reads something like this: SCD (single, confident diner) seeking same. Likes piña coladas and eating foie gras in the rain. No side-order phobias or boiled-chicken fetishes. Lite and nonfats need not apply. Your favorite restaurant review gets mine.

So you have to understand that if an acquaintance sticks around long enough to be worth a nice dinner, he is inevitably subjected to my restaurant road test. Because if you can't respect his entrée, how can you respect him in the morning?

Zazu turns out to be the ideal proving ground in a casual, gravel-parking-lot-and-screen-door kind of way. The country bistro vibe features a menu complex enough to really kick your dining partner's gustatory tires but simple enough that the test drive isn't a white-knuckle affair.

Run by thirtysomething husband-and-wife chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes, Zazu has a funky, offbeat atmosphere that feels a lot like going over to a cool friend's place, only with tablecloths, great service, a clean bathroom and really good food. Long and narrow, the bar spans the front half with only a handful of small tables alongside. The back is cozier, with a padded banquette and cafe-style tables that let you rub elbows with aplomb. Not too romantic, not too noisy, not too committed for casual daters or a friendly gathering, yet cozy enough for the married (and hoping-to-be) folk.

The menu, like any good date, is obviously trying hard to impress but comes across with understated eagerness rather than sloppy, wet pretense. Strict adherents to seasonal cooking, Stewart and Estes offer a quirky combination of home-style American and Northern Italian. Kind of Mario Batali meets Paula Deen meets the Naked Chef.

Eyes bigger than our stomachs, we hit the small plates hard, ordering a big, flaky Dungeness crab cake (a thumbs-up for the date's first order of the night) loaded with fresh crab and roasted butternut squash, sitting on a healthy squirt of Old Bay aioli ($13.50), and the small-plate special, seared foie gras with a mushroom-shaped brioche and pineapple relish ($13).

I was jonesing for the Hog Island oysters with pomegranate cosmopolitan granité ($2.50 each), but by 8pm they'd run out. (On my two visits, a number of items had run out later in the evening, so if you want something particular, go early. Seating starts at 5:30pm).

The big plates are just that--big--and vary both seasonally and sometimes nightly, according to what's looking best at the markets and from the produce suppliers. This being late winter, the dishes are pretty hearty, featuring pork, lamb, scallops and steak. The grilled Hereford flat iron steak with Point Reyes blue cheese ravioli and roasted garlic ($23) is a year-round staple and an easy winner. But we were feeling more adventurous.

He went for the diver scallops ($25), grilled and tender, sitting atop a generous bowl of risotto that was nearly black with bitter radicchio and a sweet rather than tangy 25-year-old balsamic vinegar studded with small bits of Forelle pear. The result was a lobbing of creamy, sweet, savory and bitter on the palate. Think of it as a workout for your taste buds. And it was another menu score for my date--comforting but with just the right amount of danger.

Not being one to ever refuse poetry, I tried the Ode to Pork ($21.50). The cuts were somewhat unusual, being pork cheeks and belly. The cheeks have a darker, almost shredded, barbecue-like quality that were fall-apart tender in a light, slightly sweet apple cider sauce.

The belly is a whiter, slightly chewier cut, but was also remarkably tender and well-matched with a long ribbon of apple jack cabbage and a thinly layered square of turnip potato gratin. Just a hint--the fibrous cabbage is amazingly hard to cut gracefully, and mine ended up halfway across the table. Then again, I'm a klutz.

Additional side dishes were initially intriguing: buttermilk mashed potatoes, chard, grits with white truffle oil and collard greens. Being in an adventurous mood, we loved that we could get a plate of three (we picked the taters, grits and greens) to taste for $13.50. But while the greens were smoky and spicy with ham hock, the potatoes and grits left us wanting to move on. Kind of like a bad blind date.

The wine list is extensive and, honestly, a little overwhelming. We decided to split a Hartford Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, 2000) and an Atalon Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, 1999) by the glass ($9 each). While the pinot seemed a bit grapey, the Cab sang "hallelujah" and we ended up fighting over the last sips.

What we especially loved on the wine list were the $5 Clucks--$5 pours that reminded us more than a little bit of our beloved Two Buck Chuck and lacked any pretension whatsoever. OK, so we're not exactly wine snobs. For those wanting more than a five-buck buzz, Zazu also offers premium pours Thursday through Saturday with specials posted on the chalkboard.

For dessert, Zazu's specialty of the house is a plate of "better butters" (think Nutter Butters made with actual butter) dipped in melted Scharffen Berger chocolate. By the end of the evening--after some impressive ordering, several glasses of wine and a whole lot of eye-gazing--we were ready to ask the question: "Can we, ah, take that melted chocolate to go?"


Zazu is open Wednesday-Sunday, 5:30pm-10pm, 3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa. 707.523.4814.


After-Dinner Drinks

So you've had dinner, you've done the movie--now what? Perhaps a little aperitif to aid, of course, with digestion? Grab a coffee, clear your head, then head out again to nearby watering holes.

- Big Bucks: Just down the road a piece from Zazu is the Underwood Bar and Bistro (9113 Graton Road, Graton, 707.823.7023), open late Friday and Saturday. The zinc-topped bar is classy-sophisticated. You'll feel like you're somewhere other than, well, Graton.

- Mid-Bucks: Sebastopol's Ace-in-the-Hole Cider Pub (3100 Gravenstein Hwy. N., 707.829.1101) bills itself as the nation's only cider pub. So there's that and the fact that drinking apple juice that will knock you on your ass is pretty much a good time in anyone's book. Pear, apple, honey and berry flavors are available. Ace has a kicked-back alehouse feel with plenty of room to stretch out, but--and here's the bad news--they're only open until 10pm on Friday and Saturday.

- Buck: Head back into Santa Rosa to the 440 Club (434 College Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.542.2550), a post-post-retro cool off-sales bar and liquor store. It ain't the Ritz, but the drinks are stiff and cheap, and the padded bar is a groovy throwback. The regulars dig old Blue Eyes on the jukebox, and female patrons just might get to dance with the bartender.

--H.I.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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