An appreciation of Zuni Cafe [San Francisco]

I recently had lunch at Zuni Cafe after much too long of an absence. Just walking by the window front to reach the tucked away entrance stirred up fond memories and a jolt of excitement!

I arrived a little bit earlier than my tablemates and was shown to the 2nd floor table immediately to the left of the stairs. It was an awkward table, cut and configured specifically for that niche, but would suit us nicely as we only were a party of 3. I took my seat and loved overlooking the bar and the piano and thought that the muted rainy day light coming in from all of the windows was sublime.

My friends opted for the salads and the burgers, and of course an order of those ridiculously crisp, salty, and hot shoestring potatoes. Addictive, those fries…I had the house cured anchovies and the bucatini with nettles and enjoyed them immensely. When I see nettles on a menu, I order whatever dish it’s in because I will never prepare nettles myself and the dish did not disappoint. It was simple and delicious and I love Zuni for that.

A long, long time ago, when the Saturday Farmers’ Market was on Green Street, I saw Judy Rodgers shopping there. Also there that day was Jamie Oliver who was being followed by a camera crew. Everyone was going ga-ga over him and no mind was paid to Judy Rodgers. Lunch at Zuni reminded me of that morning at the market and made me think I need to come back soon.

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Sounds like the level of cooking is as high as before the untimely passing of Chef Rodgers, which is great to hear.

We had dinner at Zuni couple of weeks ago. Great food, wonderful service.

Buckwheat crepes, noyaux ice cream, cherries, almond praline.

A perfect end to a perfect meal.

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Took some out of town visitors here on a Sunday nite a few weeks ago and Zuni sparkled.

-signature Margharita did not disappoint
-burrata & a variety of heirloom tomatoes sparkled
-roasted quail was impeccable
-and the surprise stars of the evening: smoked peach & blackberry cobbler-like deliciousness
plus an extraordinary smoked fig leaf panna cotta

ps- recommendation from the wine list was spot on and affordable.

I had a solo dinner at Zuni on a late Saturday night. Started with some oysters.

Next I had the burger, which is available during lunch and after 10pm. I overheard that during dinner hours they need the grill space for other things. I hadn’t had Zuni’s burger in awhile and it was better than I remember the last time that I had it. The patty was cooked medium rare as requested and had a little bit of a cured bouncy sausage like texture which normally would be a little odd and non-traditional but I dug it in this case. It worked with the focaccia bread that they use in lieu of a bun. Apparently they salt the beef in strips overnight before grinding which might account for this texture. Pretty juicy, was almost soaking through the bottom piece of bread. The focaccia was grilled, a little herby (rosemary), and a little crispy. I got it with some pleasantly funky blue cheese and grilled onions ($22 total with extras). Two types of pickles were served on the side. I ate the burger with just the onions and cheese and dabbed some of the strong dijon mustard provided before each bite.

I also had shoestring potatoes ($4.50). They were very thin. Nicely fried and stayed crispy. This was half an order and was already quite large.

For dessert I had the espresso granita ($12). Basically layers shaved frozen espresso between layers of whipped cream. Very nice light and refreshing but not too light because of the whipped cream which gave it some body.

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My first and only time I went to Zuni, was BEFORE Judy Rodgers started cooking there. But it seems there was a similar aesthetic. I had an outstanding margarita, guacamole made and served in a mortar and pestle and roast baby chicken. All excellent.

Her cookbook is fabulous, and is truly a teaching book rather than a bunch of cheffie recipes. RIP Judy, yes, an untimely passing.

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Absolutely agree. The lack of fireworks and razamataz here sometimes confounds visitors who expect this in such a famous room. Just superb product, solid handling, delicious plates. An all time favorite.

And the book…a biblical text.
Sorry if I’ve written this before here, but one of my favorite restaurant memories is of having a late breakfast at Zuni one morning when I found myself wailing for a nearby shop to open. Poached eggs on rye toast, coffee, a sunny window seat and the SF Chronicle all to myself. An indulgence I fondly remember.

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I continue to enjoy my visits to Zuni – for decades – any time of day. The margarita is outstanding. The burger, as well.

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I went back to Zuni for the first time in awhile for an early dinner. I sat outside on one of the sidewalk tables.

Started with the
Kentucky Joe
Buffalo Trace Bourbon, St. George Nola coffee liqueur, espresso, sugar, whipped cream
Which was a lot like an Irish coffee but with bourbon rather than Irish whisky and with some coffee liqueur. Nice and fortifying in the cool evening.

I had some oysters ($4.50 each) - from L-R one west coast (Kunamoto from Baja) and two east coast (Saint Simon, Wellfleet). The oysters were as pristine, liquor-y, and well shucked as before. Zuni does oysters really well.

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And polenta ($10), which was just a bowl of polenta topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano. It can also be ordered with mascarpone cheese. Simple and comforting.

Also had a side of shoestring potatoes ($4.50)
Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something. -Mitch Hedberg

Zuni’s shoestring potatoes are great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two hundred of something -Mr_Happy (sorry)

Nicely fried as usual, very small thin fries. This is a half order. It comes with house-made ketchup which is better than Heinz for sure. I’ve found that an effective way to eat them is to spear a bunch with your fork and dip this bundle into the ketchup if desired. Eating them one by one takes forever.

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For my main course I had the
Pan-fried petrale sole with Bintje potatoes, sautéed spinach, and caper-shallot browned butter sauce ($34)
Very simple fried fresh tasting fish, perfectly cooked with a little flouring for a bit of a crunchy exterior. In a nice nutty butter sauce with a bit of salty zing from the capers and probably lemon. The vegetables on the side were also quite fresh and perfectly cooked.

Finally for dessert I had the Santa Rosa plum tart with vanilla ice cream ($12), which had a good crust and a nice sweet tartness from the plums. Served with a sweet vanilla bean ice cream which did well to offset the tartness of the plums.

I think Zuni kind of exemplifies the California cuisine ethos of high quality, seasonal ingredients prepared simply. A very enjoyable meal.

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It’s nice to hear that “iconic” doesn’t always equate with “resting on its laurels.”

Those are some pricey oysters. I haven’t had oysters out in a long time so maybe that’s the going rate these days.

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Really ? I am afraid to see the full order

I went to Zuni for the first time right before the pandemic. It was a long time coming…30 years. Had a small office a block away on Lily St., and we’d walk by Zuni all time. The bar at night was always sparkling and inviting but couldn’t afford it as poor filmmakers. After a few years we moved…but never made it to Zuni. Made it to lots of very nice places but never Zuni. Had the chicken, bread salad, and a few other items. It was very good, as advertised but pointless to write anything about it. Still glad I went.

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Yeah the price is def. on the higher side for oysters, but for me they are a step above most places’ oysters both in quality and handling (shucking).

:joy: yes they are pretty generous with the fries.

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I’ve never been to Zuni Cafe, but I have found Judy Rodgers’ cookbook invaluable.

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For all the trendy/ fashionable/ cutting-edge places in the Bay Area, I take great comfort in returning to Zuni Cafe and Chez Panisse when I can get there from Boston. Those are places that their founders seem to have instilled with unshakeable momentum. But it’s been too long, and probably 2022 before I’m comfortable getting on a plane again.

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We love Zuni. And I love the cookbook!

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I was about to say “it’s not that bad” as a price for oysters, but Left Bank in Menlo Park charges $18 for 6, which is 3 each. I suppose I think of that as the minimum for bay area good oysters: $3/each.

Every time I’ve had oysters at Zuni I have never begrudged them the price. They’re very good and always handled very, very well.

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold