Ruth Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic, rocked the dining world when she famously delivered a twin review of Le Cirque, long an untouchable temple of fine dining. Reichl visited the restaurant once wearing one of her trademark disguises and received a peasant's welcome. Upon being recognized during a subsequent visit, she was stunned by how dramatically her experience improved.
A recent dinner at Zinc Bistro followed that script to such a comical extent that all our table could do was laugh — and cry, and smile. If our meal had been a play in three acts, it would have been a curious marriage of comedy, tragedy, and ecstasy. Experiencing all three in a single meal put a damper on the fun, to be sure. But it also offered glimpses of how good the new French bistro can be when it tries.
Having eaten a perfectly enjoyable meal at Zinc prior to the dinner in question, my expectations were firmly in mid-range: ready to be nudged upward by stellar food and service, or downward by the opposite. The opposite is precisely what greeted us. We were seated outside on a lovely summer's eve, thoughts of chilled wine dancing in our heads. Alas, there was none to be had, at least during the irksome length of time it took to be greeted. Of the two chardonnays allegedly available by the glass, only one was on hand — the more costly $12 option. There were no complaints, however, with the aligote ($8), a crisp French white. Bread, served with a lovely white bean purée, did not arrive until later, during the second act.
Appetizers followed, but they did not include our order of smoked trout for two because the kitchen discovered that it was fresh out of them. Among the items that did arrive, a steaming crock of onion soup ($7) looked seductive, draped as it was with melted cheese. But until spoons arrived, we were left picking at the herb-scented brew with our forks. In possession of proper silver from the start, we dug right into a mini cast-iron pot of crumb-coated macaroni and cheese ($9); we would have gobbled up the creamy pasta even faster had it contained a modicum of seasoning. No amount of spice, however, could have rescued a plate of fried oysters ($12) made up of fetid, past-their-prime bivalves.
There were just enough intermezzos of pleasure to fortify us through the first half of our meal. That wonderful bread did finally arrive, as did a dreamy braised short rib ravioli appetizer ($11), served on a bed of spring pea purée and garnished with ethereal mushroom foam. Cocktails, like the Moscow Mule ($8), served in a silver julep cup, or the Pursing Petal ($10), perfumed with limoncello, revealed creativity and craftsmanship behind the bar. And when all else failed, memories of a prior meal starring sparkling West Coast oysters ($12), to-die-for steak tartare ($15), and saffron-scented mussels frites ($15) buoyed our spirits enough to persevere.
But then it all changed. After being spotted by the chef during his walk-through of the patio, our meal took a marked turn for the better — so much so, in fact, that we couldn't help but giggle like stoned teenagers. Did we really just get served Russian style, with entrées presented by four separate staffers — including the general manager — in a single, dramatic flourish? And what's this? The previously unavailable trout appetizer making a surprise (albeit delicious) appearance? No, we did not order the fried green tomato special, but we wouldn't dream of letting it go to waste.
In that infamous 1993 Le Cirque review, Reichl noted how even the size of her raspberries had ballooned on her subsequent visit. I couldn't help but think along those lines when, upon gazing into my bouillabaisse ($28), I thought "What a fine kettle of fish!" There were fat scallops, firm fish filets, plump mussels, briny clams, crimson shrimp — all nestled in a deeply flavorful broth. Our croque monsieur ($10) — French for "ham and cheese" — arrived broiled to golden perfection. Steak frites ($29) and coq au vin ($14): pure bistro bliss.
The takeaway from this tale should not be that Doug Trattner gets better food at Zinc than regular peeps. It is that given the right set of circumstances, Zinc can deliver fabulous food and service. Management just needs to discover a way to make that happen under every set of circumstances, before there happens to be no set of circumstances.
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