Too Sexy for My Soufflé
It's finally happened. After almost 15 years of living in Scottsdale, I've become one of them. Not a yuppie, not yet, though I've decided that conspicuous consumption isn't necessarily a filthy term, but a pretty cool way of life.
Here I sit in a fabulous bistro at north Scottsdale yuppie-haven Kierland Commons, nestled coolly behind Crate & Barrel, within shouting distance of the Sharper Image, Sur la Table, Z Gallerie and Restoration Hardware. All around me preen fabulous folk, sleek in coordinated sweater sets and mock turtlenecks paired with blazers. The air hums with the tinkling chatter of sassy socialites and gentlemen fresh off the golf course who compare 401(k)s. I can smell the money, the perfume hanging in thick clouds over white tablecloths topped with butcher paper, bouncing off polished hardwood floors and echoing off gold sponge-painted walls hung with just a few sconces and elegant framed mirrors.
In my hand is a fabulous glass of Sancerre (Michael Redde, France, $9). On the table in front of me rests a fabulous plate of macaroni and cheese. Scottsdale macaroni and cheese, priced at a Gatsby-esque $12 for a plain white soup bowl full of elbow noodles. The cost is outrageous, yet I'm not even worried about it. Actually, I think it's all quite fabulous. My only regret -- I wish I could afford to do this all the time. And it's just one of the classy, comfortable, often compelling Parisian comfort-food dishes to be found at Scottsdale's new Zinc Bistro.
Zinc Bistro doesn't serve ordinary macaroni and cheese, but really, 12 big ones for what's essentially cafeteria food? It's got a fancy name -- macaroni gratin, if you please -- and it's dolled up, lavishly cloaked in ultra-rich cream, butter, Parmesan, mimolette (piquant French cows'-milk cheese), plus nubbins of smoked ham. But it's still just mac 'n' cheese. And the plate does little to dull the appetite: Even as rich as it is, a meal's going to require a greater outlay -- another $6 for a house salad, plus $11 for crab cakes, then we'd have a real supper.
I must have become one of them -- the dreaded, stuffy, addicted-to-excess Scottsdalites -- because I enjoy the extravagance so much I return for meals more often than I have to in order to get a fair representation of the restaurant.
There are some faults. Zinc Bistro is overpriced; it gives nothing away except crusty sourdough bread and butter. Most entrees are à la carte, with petite sides sold for $4. It's much more hip than upscale; though ahi steak au poivre demands $19, it comes with French fries wrapped in paper and plopped in a cute silver bucket. The kitchen doesn't always master a balancing act between producing classic, super-rich French cuisine and ordinary food that's simply swimming in enough cream and fat to induce sensory shock. Yet here I am again, with my nose buried in a dish that can't even be called pasta (no matter the glamorous accessories, it will never be elevated beyond the humble noodle ID).
The mac is chef Michael de Maria's noodle nonsense, which goes a long way toward making the affectation okay. He's the master behind Pinnacle Peak's deservedly pricey Michael's at the Citadel. The dish is the recipe of acclaimed chef Matt Carter, formerly of Christopher's and Michael's. The concept comes from cutting-edge restaurateur Terry Ellisor, co-owner of the groovy Merc Bar in Phoenix. With such a highfalutin partnership, it's not shocking that Zinc has been an instant must for the high-style crowd, those trendoids to whom money is no object when chasing something fabulous.
This, though, is the best part: Several local chefs have told me they hate the place; such green-eyed monster endorsement means Zinc Bistro is destined to be a hit.
Since opening ever so quietly two months ago, Zinc hasn't been following the rules. There's been virtually no marketing, barely any mention of de Maria's involvement, chef Carter's background, or Ellisor's savvy sense of combining food with a see-and-be-seen style. De Maria, in fact, is a temporary consultant, or silent partner, depending on whom you ask.
Just try to find the place, even knowing that it's part of the fabulous shopping mecca of Kierland Commons, the "new" Biltmore Fashion Park. There's a so-cool lack of signage leading to the cafe nestled on the skinny strip of asphalt snaking behind P.F. Chang's, the Cheesecake Factory and Morton's. Take a wrong turn, and risk being sucked in by the force field of another new restaurant in the commons, RA Sushi (many a happy evening has been spent at this Japanese gem, snatching bites of tuna tataki, tonkatsu and sesame sea bass).
Sitting alone at the 22-foot-long nickel zinc-topped bar, swallowing great steaming spoonfuls of French onion soup is just what's needed after a long, draining weekend, wrapped around an endless wedding rehearsal dinner at Vincent's (incredible lobster chimichangas), an endless wedding, time killed after the service at Zen 32 (tidbits of ruby-red tuna and buttery yellowtail) followed by a reception at T. Cook's (exquisite grilled sea bass), then a Sunday picnic being mauled by dogs (so bringing roast beef sandwiches into an off-leash park with 200 ravenous creatures wasn't the best idea). Exhaustion has set in, but this broth could restore the most battered soul, the golden liquor laced with tender onion slabs, chunks of fresh bread and a cap of molten Gruyère pulled in gooey strands that trail pathways from the crock to the mouth.
A plate of heaven-sent smoked salmon follows, featuring feather-thin slips of fish rolled between tears of light-as-air herbed crepe, alternating with nibbles from a mound of peppery watercress, shaved cucumber and grape tomato in a bath of lemony crème fraîche. The plate looks as pretty as it tastes, basking in the sparkle of mirrors behind the bar, its image reflected among the glittery liquor bottles stocked along chophouse-style dark wood shelves.
What's next, but an entree of one perfect pork chop, the Niman Ranch specimen roasted to a garlic-glazed edge, topped with a single crisp curl of lardon (French bacon), speared with a sprig of oregano and served choucroute, nested on a sauerkraut of juicy soft caramelized cabbage licked with honey and thyme.
Sides beckon, with fluffy, truffle-infused mashed potatoes; crisp asparagus in silky béarnaise, haricot verts (slender green beans) tossed with lemon and shiitakes; robust ratatouille; or pommes frites fleur de sel (salted French fries).
Zinc is ripe for singles, joining for communal feasts, like me, at the bar or a centerpiece table topped with tall candles sprouting wax drippings as wild as Medusa's hairdo. One fellow to my left is starting to wear on me, chatting incessantly over the soft jazz music. But I've patience enough for coffee, strong and clear, served from a French press that, in a charming touch, is left next to my cup for refills. And nothing can turn me away from Zinc's profiteroles, three flaky pastry pillows oozing with tart, fruit-chunked lemon gel, dusted with powdered sugar and dipped by forkfuls into a pool of crème drizzled with caramel.
I have enough energy later in the week to bring along a companion for animated conversation. Zinc matches our upbeat mood with a server who seems delighted we've stopped in; even more delighted that we're delighted with our dinner. And why not? It's difficult to fault Zinc's tart Alsacienne, a comfy mattress of buttery pastry overstuffed with rich creamed leeks, chunks of salted bacon, and a cap of frisee and red pepper.
Is this massive bucket of mussels an appetizer? Many people order it as an entree, our server says; they gorge on the almost two dozen black crustaceans steamed with a decadent broth of white wine, garlic and parsley under a towering mound of crunchy, salty twig-thin potato sticks. However it's consumed, this seafood is one of the best versions I've had in ages (when I run out of bread for sopping broth, I use an empty mollusk shell as a cup).
I'm pleased with the first bite of my cassoulet of duck confit, though wondering why I can't discern the promised thyme-garlic sausage, smoky white beans or, for that matter, the duck. Then I realize I've been brought the vegetable cassoulet instead. It's good if overly greasy, this pot of al dente artichoke hearts, squash, rigatoni, chopped kalamata, capers, red pepper and eggplant in a buttery stew, but the duck is better, complexly flavored and better harmonized.
The French love omelets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Zinc has a deft hand with the fluffy eggs. Fillings change daily, and my favorites include creamed leeks with roasted red pepper, or asparagus and smoked salmon. Presentation is dramatic, too, topping the plate with a leaning tower of crispy straw potatoes. And what self-respecting French bistro would neglect to offer croque monsieur? Zinc has an admirable model, stacking thick, hard-crusted French bread with complementary portions of slab-sliced smoked ham, Gruyère and béchamel (add a fried egg for a "madame").
Dessert tonight is a wicked tarte tatin, served in a petite skillet piled with sugary, caramelized fat apples over thin pastry and capped with sugar-chunked cinnamon ice cream. The soufflé is a puffy confection spooned open to expose hot chocolate lava, but it requires 30 minutes advance ordering, and it's too difficult to plan how hungry we'll be at the end of the meal.
Still, Zinc isn't always as clever as it pretends to be. Escargots are so-so snails, plumped in a little pot pie of puff pastry, stuffed with haricot verts and roasted red pepper in an uninteresting garlic butter and parsley sauce. Artichoke and celery root salad swims in an offbeat, gritty mustard rémoulade spiked with salty walnuts and grape tomatoes. I've got no use for très boring wood-fired chicken -- there's no flavor of olive and rosemary or even bird, just a cloying garlic jus. I can't figure out what's Moroccan about a so-described lamb, either. It tastes just like big, soft, fall-off-the-bone stew meat to me. Grilled Atlantic salmon is dull, unimaginatively paired with haricot verts and a milky béarnaise sauce. The tuna steak is flabby, while a side of mustard Dauphinoise just doesn't work -- cream and strong grain mustard aren't proper substitutes for cheese in this potato casserole. And this is a French restaurant, with a waitress who pronounces "foie gras" as "foy gras"?
Not that most of Zinc's clientele will care about such culinary and linguistic slips. They're here to take in the atmosphere -- the most popular item on the menu appears to be the basic Zinc burger, glammed up with a grilled onion, arugula and Roquefort or Cheddar. Every table's got one, both at lunch ($9) and dinner ($11).
Wait . . . $9, $11? Including fries? That's a much better deal than my $12 mac 'n' cheese. Maybe I haven't thought this conspicuous consumption thing through. Perhaps it's not the spending of the money that matters, it's looking like I'm doing it. With Zinc's burgers, that's an image even I can afford on a regular basis. Now that is fabulous.
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