zazu

(Santa Rosa, CA) After an early morning of hot air ballooning (courtesy Up & Away) followed by a nice visit to our friends at GlenLyon Vineyards (where Squire graciously signed our DVD of John Carpenter's Village of the Damned), we show up at zazu for a late dinner with our friends Tom and Susan. Perhaps because we know chef Duskie Estes pretty well, we spent more time socializing and enjoying the fresh ingredients than we did shooting video...

He Fed:
We pull in to another Santa Rosa weather-beaten roadside building with a gravel parking lot that few would suspect harbors a world-class chef and culinary delights beyond measure. I remember the last time we were here, but only with vague impressions because we first visited the restaurant at the start of our foodie adventures and I'm pretty sure I was besotted with too much wine-tasting. I do recall the chef being exceptionally nice and the food prepared exquisitely. Then, it had been after sundown; today, the sun is still shining as we all pile out of the rental car and enter the slightly dimmer interior.

The first thing I smell is food cooking: meat, spice, the sharp tang of sauteed veggies. Although I'm not ravenous, the atmosphere jump starts my appetite. As soon as the door closes behind us, Duskie is standing right there behind the bar! I am perhaps too easily starstruck and tend to shrink like a wallflower in the presence of someone who actually appeared in a movie or on television. Duskie and her husband have appeared on the California promotional spots. She greets us warmly, then turns us over to the hostess who seats us at a round table that is conducive to conversation and sharing food.

Everything on the menu looks great, and we know it will be fresh because zazu grows all their own vegetables and livestock. We start with ramekins filled with assorted "appetizers": pureed eggplant sprinkled with goat cheese, that spreads like hummus on warm pita points and is simultaneously earthy and addictive; golden beet "caviar" is sweet and just as spreadable as the eggplant; farro bean salad provides just the right amount of contrast and starchy texture; but it is the baby Japanese radishes with dipping butter that steals the show. Each tiny radish brings some heat, which is quickly quelled by the herbed butter. Outstanding!

After my flirtation with the vegetarian lifestyle, I decide to mix it up a bit by partaking of their "Pizza & Pinot" special. I experience a slight twinge of guilt, ordering a less expensive meal at a friend's restaurant; you want to give them all the business you can, right? Still, it's pretty hard to resist the Carbonara pizza with black pig bacon and a fried egg on top. Yes, you heard me right...a fried egg. I have a rough time passing up any dish that incorporate an actual egg on top, whether it's a Royal Red Robin or eggs benedict. I'm not sure which glass of pinot noir to pair with the pizza and after some discussion with the rest of the group, we decide to share a bottle of Black Pig Pinot Noir, zazu's own branded wine.

The pizza arrives, resplendent in swathes of mozzerella cheese lurking under chunks of well-cooked, succulent black pig bacon and cross-sections of asparagus. But on top, like a crown, is a gorgeous fried egg. My first bite is crunchy yet slippery smooth. The asparagus are firm, softened just a tad by the heat of the oven. They are complemented perfectly by the salty meat. When I bite into the sunshiney goodness of the egg, however, it all devolves into memories of brunches long past. The crust is nice but plain, and that may be for the best, considering the interplay of toppings. All of this is washed down nicely by the wine, which is a no-nonsense vintage from Russian River Valley that is reminiscent of good Italian table wine (with a bit more pinch to it).

It is unfortunate that I've left no room for dessert. While Tom goes for the vanilla bean gelato and Juliet opts for a strawberry risotto dish, I decline. It hardly matters! With compliments from the chef, we are presented with a Mexican hot chocolate and glazed doughnut. I am intrigued, of course, by the hot chocolate drink and take a tentative sip...BOOM GOES THE DYNAMITE! Hot chile pepper breathes heat through the bittersweet chocolate, mingling with cinnamon and a slightly nutty aftertaste. I force everyone else to have a taste as well, then dunk the doughnut into the spicy sweet mixture, relishing the way the pastry softens on my tongue so I barely need to chew.

More than satisfied, we pay the bill and bid Duskie and crew a fond farewell. This has been another fun trip to Santa Rosa, and we're always happy to delve into the fresh offerings of the region. Although this trip has only been our second visit, we cannot imagine not stopping by again when we're in the area. zazu is worth seeking out, every time and when you do, tell them Juliet and Jeremy sent you.
She Fed:
In the interest of full disclosure I should share that I've been to zazu before and I've had the wonderful opportunity to meet the owner-chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart. In fact, I've worked a few wine and food events with Duskie, laughed over cocktails with her at the famous Food & Wine "Top of the Mountain" party and if my fuzzy memory serves, she and I were part of a larger crew intent on draining a few bottles of event wine poolside in Aspen last June. I unabashedly adore Duskie. I admire and respect the hell out of what she and her husband are striving toward. (They grow the veggies, raise the pigs, cure the bacon and make the salumi themselves. Come on!) And I just outright love her food.

We walk in the door at 8p to find the place hopping. Duskie is behind the bar and zips over to give some hugs, while saying something about hoping to make us proud in the kitchen, which I think is adorable given the rave reviews zazu receives and her reputation in the industry. (After all, when the California tourism folks had to pick talent for their "come to California" commercials, it's Duskie and John you see behind the bar and picking veggies on their farm.)

We start with a platter of smoky eggplant dip, a slightly chunky puree of golden beets, farro salad and local baby radishes with tarragon butter served with grilled rustic bread, warm pita triangles and smaller toast points. The next half hour is lost in munching and chatter. I've never had farro before and find myself loving it. Like a cross between legume and over-sized Israeli couscous, it's chewy, nutty and perfectly seasoned in a vinagrette. Not quite a puree, not quite a finely chopped mixture, the beets are tangy, sweet and slightly buttery all at the same time. Schmeared on the charred toast, the orangey-yellow melange is rich and lovely. I decide immediately to figure out how to prep farro and "beet caviar" when we return home.

I have long read about eating fresh spring radishes by dipping them in sweet butter and salt. I can never find fresh radishes at the market, so I've never tried it before tonight. The radishes on our table are small and elongated, like the size of my thumb or even smaller. Dragging the pink-white radishes through the green-flecked butter is nearly as much fun as eating them. The radishes are very slightly peppery, a crisp contrast to the silky sweet tarragon butter. I vow to set the alarm on Saturdays and head to the farmer's market to find good radishes this summer.

The eggplant dip is indeed smoky, earthy and deeply satisfying. I try it on the pita triangles, the toast points and the charred toast. I'm willing try it on a spoon or even off my index finger. I can actually taste the eggplant, instead of an overwhelming assault of garlic or tahini like I've had with other eggplant dips. Promise #4 is to learn to cook eggplant this summer.

At some point we realize we need to order dinner though I'm fully prepared to order another round of farro, radishes, beets and eggplant just for me. Instead I go with the grilled salmon over fava bean and farro. Gotta try more farro! I also order a side of fried green tomatoes with buttermilk dipping sauce. Our food arrives and we all begin to oooh and aaah over the sights and smells in front of us.

My salmon is cooked perfectly and the top has a tasty nearly-blackened crust. I discover farro is equally yummy served hot and this farro is in a light butter sauce with fava beans. The fried green tomatoes are sturdy and chewy with a light breading. The buttermilk sauce is fresh and just a bit tart...divine. I begin to reconsider my decision to never, ever deep-fry anything in the condo.

Duskie treats us to an order of fresh asparagus sauteed in brown butter and served with pistachios. What could I possibly say about this dish that you aren't already thinking? And yes, I promise to try to replicate this one at home, too.

Dessert...a scoop of vanilla bean gelato, Mexican hot chocolate with fresh donuts (another gift from Chef Duskie) and a scoop of honey gelato with roasted strawberries. Absolutely spectacular. Duskie comes out to chat for a bit and we bid her adieu until our next Sonoma visit. I leave feeling pleasantly full, completely satisfied and so in awe of her talent.

Worth the airfare.
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