The Zoot Allure
Don't Take the class, charm, and reputation for granted
509 Hearn, 477-6535
Tuesday-Thursday, 6-10pm; Friday-Sunday, 5:30-10pm
Zoot has had an unassailable reputation for offering some of Austin's finest food for so long, it might be easy to take it for granted. When Erika and Bick Brown opened Zoot, along with chef Stewart Scruggs, Austin was still in its culinary adolescence. They displayed courage in opening a haute cuisine restaurant at the end of one of Austin's worst financial busts.
In retrospect, they made a good gamble. Though Scruggs left to pursue international consulting and other restaurants like Brio Vista, the Browns kept Zoot rolling. Through a succession of chefs, Zoot always delivered the goods -- seasonal ingredients, prepared with respect for the flavors, using inventive recipes with an ever-evolving menu. About six months ago, in a surprise announcement, the Browns revealed that they were selling Zoot. While lots of Austin eateries go through ownership changes, Zoot had always seemed like a perennial. Luckily, there was a wonderful symmetry to the sale. One of the new owners would be Stewart Scruggs (along with his partner at Wink, Mark Paul). Scruggs was coming home.
After briefly closing for redecorating, Zoot reopened on April 1. From the outside, the beautiful little 1920s-era house is still as charming as ever, with its homey and inviting entrance. Inside, the first impression is that the colors are more muted, lending a feeling of cool elegance. Zoot's lighting is bright enough to read but dark enough for a little romantic allure. The tables are nicely spread so you never feel like you are forced into a neighbor's conversation. Fifties jazz plays quietly in the background. Details are fussed over without leaving the feeling of being persnickety. There are thick, white tablecloths, and I was particularly happy to see good, quality wine glasses. For the hyperjudicious wine lover, they even have a stash of high-end Judel glasses available.
The elegance extends to the clientele, a mix of old and young. About half the tables had small gatherings of friends, chattering happily, filling the room with a cheerful buzz. The other half had romantic couples holding hands and communicating with their eyes. Everyone looked well-heeled and well-dressed. This is definitely not a place for flip-flops and shorts or for showing off your newest tat or piercing. Though the staff has way too much class to offend a customer over their attire, think of it as a place classy enough that you want to look your best.
Speaking of the staff, this is some of the best service I've found in Austin. When we arrived, a smiling gentleman opened the door and greeted us. We were immediately seated at our reserved table. Within seconds, our waitperson welcomed us, displaying the perfect blend of friendliness and affability without ever descending into fake familiarity. His actions made us feel like we were a welcome guest in his home. Even better, he was extremely knowledgeable about both the food and the wine. He was willing to make (what turned out to be perfectly accurate) recommendations and he never reflexively pointed us toward the most expensive items. When I asked about wines, he knew the list well. I ordered two wines in short hand. "I'll have a bottle of the Albariño and the Lirac," I said. In most restaurants, the waitperson would need more information or even want me to point out my selection on the list. He just smiled and said, "Excellent choices." His service was very professional and unobtrusive. I never had to look for him; he just appeared as if by magic the second we needed anything.
The only service issue was with the person serving bread and water. First, he was hard to find. Second, he didn't mind putting the crook of his elbow two inches from your face if it made it easier for him to get to the place he was trying to reach. However, this is simply a training issue and will probably be resolved shortly after you read this. It wouldn't be an issue at Red Lobster or Olive Garden, but at Zoot, it was a jarring note.
There were no jarring notes when it came to the food. We started with three appetizers. I loved the Seared Foie Gras ($15), a tiny, perfectly cooked piece of liver on fried brioche with an incredibly intense fig jam. Add a glass of Chateau d'Armajan des Ormes Sauternes ($9) for the perfect French bistro experience. Zoot's Potato Leek Soup ($8) was redolent of leeks with a creamy texture and an ingenious addition -- a little mound of crispy duck confit took the soup from good to fascinating. My favorite of the appetizers was the House Smoked Salmon and Goat Cheese Terrine ($8), a dish with a bed of fava-bean purée and pickled onions adding lively acidity. This dish made magic with the Pazo San Mauro Albariño ($34) wine.
A quick note about the wines. Zoot started with a wonderful selection of wines in all price categories. Over the years, especially during the dot-com boom, they tended to feature higher-priced wines. I'm happy to say that whoever is handling the current wine list has put some thought into serving some stellar bargain wines. The wine list runs around 70 bottles and almost half are available by the glass. While you can still find a couple of $500-plus wines, I had no trouble ferreting out several bargains less than $35. The above mentioned Pazo San Mauro Albariño is from the Rías Baixas area in the far northwest corner of Spain. It is a wonderful white wine for folks stuck on chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. The aromas and flavors go flawlessly with shellfish, seafood, and garlicky dishes. Other great bargain white wines include Schlumberger Pinot Blanc ($23) and Chateau de la Ragotiere Muscadet ($19). In the red wines, the bargains take a little more digging, but two constant standbys are available, Gallo of Sonoma Family Selection Cabernet ($24) and Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Zinfandel ($19). Toward the bottom of the list, I struck gold. Under the heading "Rhone and Rhone Varietals" there was a beautiful little wine from the appellation of Lirac, Chateau St. Roch Lirac ($27). This is a fruity young wine, very uncomplicated but with delicious flavors and enough tannic grip to stand up to our main courses.
The Lirac was wonderful with Zoot's Grilled Rack of Lamb ($23). Zoot has found a purveyor with the most delicate baby lamb I've tasted in quite a while. My plate had five tiny ribs that couldn't have held more than an ounce of meat each. It was supremely tender with just a hint of the delicious lamb aroma. No muttony flavors whatsoever. The ribs rested on a bed of baby vegetables and lavender-infused flageolets with a delicious red wine reduction. I especially loved the little asparagus, crunchy and delectable, hiding under the lamb. We also had a Grilled Filet of Beef Tenderloin ($24) served with hash browns made from Yukon Gold potatoes and a tiny collection of rhubarb and bing cherries on top. The steak was tasty with a beef demi-glace sauce, but the rhubarb and bing cherries were the stars of the plate. Imagine intensely fresh flavors with crunchiness, sweetness, and an almost radishy piquancy. Saving last for best, Zoot's Day Boat Halibut ($24) was cooked faultlessly and bursting with fresh flavors of mango and cucumber chutney dressed with a citrus lime dressing, then topped with spring greens and lump crab meat. Each mouthful woke up memories of being seaside in the tropics.
Zoot was featuring four desserts, and we decided to try them all. Their Warm El Rey Chocolate Cake ($7) had a rich dark-chocolate flavor perfect for your inner chocoholic. It also featured some zinfandel-soaked cherries that gave just enough acid to offset the sugar. Nice idea. Zoot's Strawberry Napoleon ($7) used crispy fillo to give a pleasant crunch along with the sweet vanilla custard, strawberries, and bananas. Their version of Crème Brûlée ($7) was hedonistically lush with intense vanilla and topped with raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Our favorite dessert was the Coconut Buttermilk Tart ($7), almost a chess-pie flavor, but with a bright and clean sauce made from poached pineapples, vanilla, and passion fruit.
So is everything perfect at Zoot? Almost. There were two issues that might (or might not) make a difference to you. First, Zoot is not a place for folks who like their plates overflowing with food. Servings are ample, but they focus on refinement over mass. Second, all three appetizers and all three entrées arrived at our table pleasantly warm, but not hot. I don't know if someone has made the decision to let the food rest a bit before bringing it to the table. Perhaps to let the flavors meld? Diners who like to linger (like us) may wish for a little more heat in the beginning.
And linger you will. Zoot has a very gemütlich feel. We hung around for almost four hours, relaxing, enjoying each other's company, talking as old friends do about everything in the world. We never felt an iota of pressure to leave so they could clean the table. After the last dessert was removed, I enjoyed a small, delicious glass of Domaine de Coyeux Muscat Beaumes de Venise ($7), a perfect ending. When the conversation lulled, we looked up and noticed we were the only customers left. In the waning hours Mark Paul and Stewart Scruggs had showed up. They had been at a benefit; it was late, and they sat at a table near the front, talking about who knows what, drinking a bottle of Deutz Champagne. As we slowly strolled out the door, they stopped us and said good night.
Indeed, it was a good night. We felt comfortable, pampered, and well fed. Zoot is better than ever.
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