Sunday, 1 July 2012

Zuni Cafe, San Francisco

After three solid weeks of consuming and imbibing we limped into our final weekend in the States with a heavy hearts and straining waistbands. With so much to do/see/try the effects of multiple cheeseburgers, pork buns and craft beer was taking its toll and all I really craved was something plain and simple; a good old roast chicken, hot and crispy from the oven, for example.
As luck would have it we were staying a mere mile or so from the feted Zuni Cafe, established by Judy Rogers in 1979 and celebrated for serving some of the finest roast chicken in the land. I tried the website, hoping to snag a Sunday reservation. No luck, fully booked all day. They were also closed on Monday, and we were flying home Tuesday afternoon. After so much good fortune, had our luck finally run out?
Fortunately I noticed that walk in tables were kept free at the bar, and on good days you could even snag an unreserved table outside. Even more fortunate the Ewing agreed to get up early on Sunday, and schlep down some of the seedier parts of Market Street (including dodging fleets of, rather erratically pushed, shopping carts and being propositioned at several sets of traffic lights), just to nab a table when they open just after eleven.
Luck was still firmly on our side as we were warmly greeted and, despite our lack of reservation, lead upstairs to a sunny window table, with views to both the street and the kitchen below. Triumphant that the infamous chicken was soon to be ours we ordered a bottle of chilled Napa Sauvignon Blanc to celebrate. (And to help pass the time; each bird is cooked to order, and takes an hour to prepare.)

San Francisco sourdough; I'll never tire of this stuff. The deeply blackened crust and slightly 'fizzy' flavour, slathered with a slab of pale and creamy butter.

The pizza with Wagon Wheel cheese and onions; the perfect pre-chicken nibble accompanied with a cold glass of wine. This had a beautifully light and blistered crust from the wood-fired brick oven, but was missing a touch of seasoning. The sweet onions and oily cheese just needed a little something sharp or salty to give it that cutting edge.

Watching a chicken production line from my vantage point on the balcony. It was quite a sight to see so many birds being perfectly cleaved before being presented on their little nests of bread and greens.

The money shot: Zuni's roast chicken for two with Tuscan bread salad. Despite all the hype I always thought that the pictures I had seen of this looked a little underwhelming. Roast chicken, check; green salad, check; handful of crispy bread; check. Hardly awe-inspiring stuff. Of course, that was until I tasted it....

The simple things in life are often the best, and the chicken at Zuni exemplifies that. The bird is good, but the bread stuffing is even better; a wonderful mixture of crispy and crunchy, all gloriously soggy with chicken fat and sharpened with wine vinegar. The stuffing had a sprinkling of inky black currants and toasted pine nuts, which sounds a bit strange but tastes totally brilliant.
It may look like a light lunch, but looks can be deceptive. Despite being advertised as being for two to share, there was easily enough to feed a family. Having said that, the Ewing and I took it down between us, much to the amusement of the two ladies sitting next to us.

By this point I had truly reached saturation point. Three weeks of pure gluttony were finally catching up me and I was left slumped in the gently dappled light of a Northern Californian afternoon, barely able to even finish the rest of my wine.

While I was moaning and groaning across the table the Ewing was having no such problems, and was greedily pouring over the desert menu. The Meyer lemon and olive oil sorbet with hazelnut biscotti and candied lemon peel was her pick of a fruity-sounding bunch. A truly lovely pud that was, in turns, sharp, fruity and creamy with the scent of summer in every bite.

After lunch, to keep my side of the bargain, we rolled back down Market Street, and I was subjected to an afternoon shopping in Westfield San Francisco. Now I can officially say that visiting the mall on the weekend is a special kind of hell no matter where you are. Lucky for me our glorious lunch more than made up for any discomfort caused by waiting outside changing rooms, while attempting to comment on seemingly endless, but subtly different, outfits without offending anyone.

A bellyful of chicken and wine, and the memories of a wonderful meal, were all I needed to keep a smile on my face and my sanity intact.

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