Hanging Out in Rockford: California dreaming: Zuni and home

Summer and I are at the Zuni Café in the San Francisco financial district. We have just had some of the best whole wheat bread I have had in my life.

The calamari arrives. It is nicely fried, hand breaded, and comes with a homemade aioli. I like the calamari we do at the Irish Rose better. We don’t fry ours in a deep fryer; we do it in a pan with pomace olive oil, and we add a little garlic and some fresh Greek oregano at the very end.

Summer’s mixed greens are dressed with sweet balsamic vinaigrette dressing, a pet peeve of mine, although this might be simply considered a matter of taste. I hate the recent notion of throwing balsamic vinegar on everything. I am, however, thrilled that both come on a simple 9-inch white plate (remember, the emphasis is always on the food). The Caesar tastes very slightly of old anchovies, curious because one of the things Zuni is known for is that they prepare their own. Maybe they just made too many, and someone hasn’t caught it. There is a particular bacteria associated with anchovies, and it grows rapidly at refrigeration temperatures. I am particularly sensitive to it. Most people would simply not notice. I cannot say it has never happened in my restaurant, but it is something we try not to have happen.

The roast chicken arrives and, frankly, it is a little dry. I would say it was perhaps 10 degrees overdone. I like to cook my wood oven chicken to 165, in other words, barely legal by Health Department standards. The Chinese eat their chicken red on the bone. They can do this because they hand clean their chickens. The bacteria in the intestinal tract never gets to touch the meat of the chicken. In the United States, we clean our chicken by machine. Need I say more? One hundred sixty-five is the magic number to kill the bacteria. It is as juicy as you are going to get in America, unless someone is not doing his or her job. I don’t think they intend to cook it to 175 at Zuni, but sometimes things happen even in the best of restaurants. It is, however, a fine-tasting bird.

With the chicken is something they call a bread salad. White cake-style homemade bread, the kind we serve at the Irish Rose, has been tossed in virgin olive oil and baked ever so slightly in the wood oven. It and the disjointed chicken have been tossed with baby arugula. The resulting mixture of the chicken juices, the roasted bread and the arugula is almost like a stuffing. I like the idea a lot. I would be tempted to add garlic to this mixture. But sitting here and eating in this world-famous, considered by some to be the best restaurant in San Francisco, I have an epiphany: I realize we have built a world-class restaurant in Rockford at the Irish Rose, whether we are recognized for it or not. I feel really good about what we have done. It was worth the trip to find out.

After Zuni, we take a cab back to the hotel. Before going in, we walk across the street to the Fiddler’s Green and have a nightcap. A couple of young guys try to pick up on Summer, but I send them scurrying. Back at the hotel, Summer wants cigarettes, and I walk out to get them in the rain. I am walking in the rain in my new San Francisco jacket, thinking about what a wonderful time I have had. I buy some French fries at a stand we had noticed where they fresh cut them. Why? God only knows. They are insipid and tasteless, and I throw them in a trash receptacle.

Back at the hotel, Summer is already asleep. The next morning, on our trip to the airport, she navigates again. As usual, all the signs are wrong, but we manage to find our way to the airport anyway. On the plane to Minneapolis, Summer isn’t feeling good. At the airport layover, she spends the time with her head resting on a table in the airport bar. I sneak off to eat a cheeseburger.

Back in Chicago, we have to catch a cab over to O’Hare from Midway, where Northwest Airlines has sent us. The Jordanian cab driver is a philosopher and is predicting World War III if our goofy president attacks Iran. He keeps looking back to talk at me and wandering from one lane to another. But he always seems to catch it just in time. When we get to the airport parking, it is pouring rain. I leave Summer at the tram station, and have to walk about a mile in the pouring rain to rescue my van.

I drive back to Rockford, Summer sleeping in the seat next to me. I drop her off at her house, and head back to the Irish Rose. Troy has smoked some meat and fish at his house, and brought it over for everyone. I am ravenous, and the food is wonderful. After my meal of smoked meat and fish and homemade potatoes, I climb the stairs, close the hatch, and go to bed.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the June 14-20, 2006, issue

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