Hanging Out in Rockford: California dreaming: Zuni Café

I am not a big fan of the present-day Chicago restaurant scene. I think hanging a piece of bacon from a wire swing or slathering a peeled grape with peanut butter and wrapping it in brioche is just plain nuts (I don’t need to pay several hundred dollars to taste this peeled grape nonsense; I can taste it in my head). The thought of grinding up Altoids to make a sauce for lamb chops makes my stomach grind. Towers of food do not impress me; I refer to them as food erections. It is as if they let a bunch of kids loose in the kitchen.

California was experimenting in excesses like these when I first lived out there. Fortunately, mostly due to the influence of Alice Waters, the California scene headed away from this tomfoolery. Alice Waters single-handedly led California on a more adult love affair with food. She emphasized the ingredients, using nothing but the best. Being in a city with so much disposable income, she encouraged farmers to bring her the finest produce, much of it organic. She simplified preparations and presentations, believing the primary emphasis should be on tasting and eating the food and not on gimmickry.

The menu was more flexible, too. Some of this is the influence of foreign cultures. California has had a lot of these a lot longer than Illinois. Mexican people are not so anal-retentive about having the same thing on the menu every time you come in. You cannot do the Midwestern thing of going to the same restaurant every week and eating the same old boring entrée. Sometimes, they are just not serving it. This is typical also in a lot of European countries where they rely on fresh ingredients, locally grown, and they have a tradition of doing that. Their palates are more educated. Because of this, they are more open to foods they have not previously tried. They also use all parts of the animal, not just the big primal cuts.

But that is not what Summer and I are thinking about tonight. We are only thinking about being in San Francisco and about going to the Zuni Café, where I know they have a wood-fired oven and make roast chicken. I am really psyched. We get to Zuni, and they show us to our table immediately. Our waitress is a really sophisticated-looking blonde woman. She is conversant with the menu. There is an extraordinary wine list, listing bottles into the several hundred-dollar range. I order a bottle of chardonnay for about $30, I can’t for the life of me remember which one; I do remember that it was delicious.

The place itself is beautiful. It is on two levels and has a wonderful bar. The kitchen itself is as large as the entire Irish Rose, and it is right out in the open. They seat us right next to the kitchen, where we can see everything including the double-decker, European-style, wood-fired oven. I would say we had the best seats in the house. Others would feel they had been seated next to the kitchen. It’s all a matter of perspective. There is a couple next to us eating the Kobi beef hamburgers ($13) and Pommes Frittes (French Fries) ($6). I like the idea of a hamburger on the menu. It draws people in the first time. It eradicates prejudices about food.

For our dinner, we order the fried calamari, a mixed green salad for Summer, a Caesar salad for me, and the roast chicken for two. They bring us bread, a whole wheat bread so good, I cannot but compare it to the bread Alan Scott, the oven-maker, made when we visited him in Petaluma-Marshal. Like Alan, they grind the wheat for this bread at Zuni. No oil is added because the natural wheat contains all the oil necessary. The recipe is simple—wheat, water and salt. The leavening is a sourdough bacterium made of micro-organisms that have been naturally associated with wheat for eons. Alan always said these bacteria were much more healthy for humans because they were much larger than brewer’s yeast and could not pass through the stomach lining. Anyone who has ever had a yeast infection should be sympathetic with this.

More next week.

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 7-13, 2006, issue

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