Scott Harris was worried. Co-owner of Za-Za Food and Drink, a two-year-old restaurant at Cedar Center shopping center, Harris watched helplessly as the temperature in his tiny kitchen climbed toward 140 degrees. The ventilation system had crashed, the BTUs were piling up, and at one point, Harris says, the thought crossed his mind that the walls might spontaneously ignite. Worse still, it was a Saturday night, at the peak of the dinner rush, and the dining room held a crowd of eager guests.
Before long, of course, it became obvious that Harris and his partner, Leighann McCarthy, had no choice but to shut down the kitchen. Lucky for us, our order was one of the last ones filled before the crew finally cleared out. "Lucky," that is, because most of chef Matthew Fober's fun-loving fare is far too good to miss. Between his studies at Tri-C's culinary arts program and experience in a number of local country clubs and restaurants, the 25-year-old chef has already picked up some pretty impressive chops. And since taking over Za-Za's kitchen last January, he's given those skills a workout, broadening the menu's focus and helping shift Za-Za's identity from a bar to a respectable restaurant.
Today, the spot's eclectic, mid-priced menu roams from fried green tomatoes and jambalaya to coconut shrimp and beef tournedos. Nearly everything -- including salad dressings, desserts, and most sauces -- is made in-house; in fact, a weeknight server actually seemed offended when we asked whether the menu's coconut shrimp was fresh or frozen. "Everything is made here," he replied with profound sincerity. "And besides, I know we hand-bread the shrimp, because I snack on the coconut!" And honestly, if we had only waited until we tasted them, we never would have questioned the shrimp's provenance: Inside their crunchy, coconut-laced shells, the big guys were entirely too crisp and sweet to be anything but fresh.
Fober's food, though not innovative, is big and cheerful, with the kind of enthusiasm one expects of a young chef reveling in the possibilities of his first kitchen. And if sometimes Fober veers toward excess, his basic culinary smarts usually keep him from toppling off the edge. Take his sun-dried-tomato-and-pesto tapenade, for example, a hugely flavored bread-spread that could have easily tumbled into gustatory chaos. Instead, the confetti of flavors -- jammy sweetness, garlicky heat, and the almost minty counterpoint of fresh basil -- turned out to be heady, fragrant, and delicious enough to eat with a fork, which is precisely what we did.
Beyond being fearless in the face of garlic, the chef also knows his way around more mild-mannered seasonings. He employs salt and pepper with a preacher's fervor. He blends butter with honey, sage, and cream. He scatters handfuls of chopped scallion greens across bowls of spicy gumbo and jambalaya, and sprinkles plump, dried cranberries and toasted pine nuts on everything from salads to fried chicken. Considering the frequency with which honey and fruit-flavored sauces show up in his compositions, we suspect that he also has a sweet tooth; happily, he tempers his apparent fondness for sweetness by balancing it against salty, tangy, tart, or fiery flavors, to generally good effect.
Fober's theory of portion size is generous, too. Moist jambalaya, studded with tender bits of chicken and thick slices of lean andouille, spills over the top of a sourdough bread bowl that must be as large as a toddler's head. A mountainous portion of sturdy, spicy gumbo fairly bristles with pearly shrimp. An enormous entrée of twin, four-ounce beef filets, attentively done to order and served on garlic mashed potatoes, along with slender asparagus spears and a tangle of skinny fried onion rings, was both good and plentiful, with enough left over for lunch the next day. Better still, at a reasonable $23 -- tapenade, herbed butter, crusty bread, and a simple mixed-greens salad included -- the dish seemed like an honest value, too.
Still, it was Fober's version of southern fried chicken that really rocked our socks -- a thick, boneless breast, marinated in buttermilk and hot sauce, jacketed in a dense cornmeal batter, fried to crunchy crispness, and drizzled with a touch of honey. Because it had been protected during cooking by its sturdy crust, the meat literally burst with juices when we first cut into it, and it remained outrageously moist and tender to the very last crumb. Simply served with white rice, fresh green beans, and a sprinkling of cranberries and pine nuts (of course), the dish was a mellow, mouthwatering confluence of contrasting flavors and textures, and one that deserves a spot on any diner's short list of homey favorites.
Other worthy items included moist jalapeño-and-cheddar cornbread muffins, served with warm garlic- and red-pepper-piqued honey; a juicy crabmeat-stuffed portobello mushroom cap, slathered with melted provolone; and an even-handed take on macaroni and cheese -- not too dry, not too runny, with the deftly balanced flavors of American, cheddar, and creamy ricotta cheeses.
In fact, the only also-ran was a soggy Po' Boy sandwich, stuffed with cold, barely grilled portobello slices. Overloaded with cole slaw, pickles, and sliced tomato, and piled on a length of mayonnaise-soaked French bread, this nontraditional Boy was a battleground of flavors, as well as being too limp to eat out-of-hand and too odd to merit the effort of grabbing a knife and fork.
Like Fober's food, Za-Za's interior is a pleasant surprise. The restaurant's location, near the end of one of the area's shabbier strip plazas, does little to prepare diners for the dark, clubby space waiting on the other side of the nondescript door. But with its jewel-like walls of cobalt, aubergine, and crimson; oversized gilded mirrors; and plump, upholstered furniture, the space feels intimate and romantic, and is just the right setting for perusing the long martini list or the small but well-chosen wine menu, and enjoying some live jazz.
Still, those who are dining may wish for more comfort. The hard, bentwood-style dining chairs, for instance, seemed more suited to a soda shop than to a restaurant; white-cloth-draped tables proved small and cramped; and tiny halogen spotlights, marching across the high ceiling, seemed to be focused nowhere in particular, resulting in lighting that was unflatteringly bright at some tables and nonexistent at others.
Service standards, too, could use some retooling. Servers were friendly, but none too attentive, forgetting to remove soiled dishes between courses, for instance, and having to be reminded to bring iced-tea refills. Pacing lagged, too, and on both visits, more than 20 tedious minutes elapsed between the time we placed our dessert order (one night, incidentally, a refreshingly simple arrangement of ice cream, assorted berries, and whipped cream, in a tuile bowl; another night, a so-so sweet-potato cheesecake, with a frothy filling that seemed more like mousse) and the time it finally arrived.
There are lesser restaurants, of course, where such issues would seem hardly worth mentioning. After all, if the food is already a trip to Dullsville, who cares about the mode of transportation? But, obviously, that's not the case at Za-Za. Fober's food is so full of life and energy that it deserves to be presented with more panache -- better tabletop illumination, more comfortable seating, and slicker service, for instance -- so guests can groove on it without distraction. After all, the guy has proved he can take the heat. Now let's put his food in the spotlight.