The menu at Zin is a masterpiece, but what about the meals?
On a recent Thursday night in Central Austin, Zin hummed with activity. Servers zipped in between tables with colorful platters of artfully arranged food. They deftly whisked away unused glasses and replaced dirty flatware. Professional and flattering, the staff at this chic Brykerwoods eatery chatted with customers in the casual, unobtrusive manner that emblemizes the American restaurant experience.
Zin is the newest venture from veteran Austin restaurateur/chef Fred Geesin, who has partnered with two newcomers to the scene: Rick Deitrick and Heath Hoselton. From the cork-veneered tables to the basic black color accents to the flat-screen televisions hanging on the wall, Zin is every inch an American bistro. The restaurant specializes in new American cuisine and American wines. It features an ample wine list studded with quirky, affordable picks from northern California and Oregon and a bill of fare inspired by the diversity of the American palate.
However, I found it surprising and somewhat regrettable that a restaurant named after a great American wine would actually offer so few of them by the glass. This was particularly troublesome because the menu was so very eclectic that trying to find a bottle of wine to match two or more people's dinner choices proved to be something of a contortion act. This is not to say that the wine list is poor or that the menu is unappealing. On the contrary, both crackle with real creativity. The problem is getting them to match. Too many of the good wines were available only by the bottle, and this can be problematic when people order wildly different meals. But this fundamental incompatibility seemed to be indicative of my experience with Zin. It is a restaurant of heartbreaking promise that falls just short of the target. It is a restaurant heading in the right direction that has not quite arrived.
The menu reflects the diverse influences of lead chef Geesin, formerly of Gilligan's. The Gilligan's signature style is very apparent on the bill of fare at Zin. An ambitious bundle of fusion foodstuffs, the menu integrates Southwestern themes with pan-Asian, French-influenced preparations with the flavors of the Caribbean. Geesin mingles sweet and tart, spicy and savory, in an unpredictable patchwork of color, flavor, and texture. After all, that is what new American cuisine is all about: a celebration of the great rolling boil of cultural influence. When done well, it can be clever, playful, and a delight to the senses.
But I found that while the menu boldly promised culinary flights, it did not always reach maximum altitude. Take a marinated balsamic shrimp appetizer ($9) served with a horseradish dipping sauce and sprout salad. This little dish arrived in a martini glass garnished with six large rosemary-skewered shrimp. The shrimp were divine, perfectly cooked, and flavored with just a hint of balsamic. However, the promised horseradish sauce was nothing more than ketchup-based cocktail sauce, and the sprout salad consisted of nothing more than a few (dare I say shrimpy?) shreds of garniture. It's not that there is anything wrong with shrimp cocktail, or that this particular shrimp cocktail was bad, it's just that I felt a little misled by a description that pledged something other.
Another shrimp entrée ($16) was similarly befuddled by an overzealous description on the menu. The bill of fare described a crab-stuffed shrimp with horseradish panko crust accented by a cactus pear buerre blanc. Once again, the shrimp arrived as promised and were quite delightful. But the envisioned buerre blanc never materialized. In its place was a thuggishly sweet, thick purée that was far too abrasive for the rest of the plate. It was most definitely not a buerre blanc. Finally, in another rather bold bait-and-switch move, the kitchen recycled a lobster bisque I had eaten earlier for a second sauce to accompany Grilled Sea Scallops With Mustard Cream ($16). Though I enjoyed the bisque as an appetizer, I found myself wishing that I had been informed that it would also appear on the scallops.
Now, these kitchen-to-table communication missteps feed into a longstanding grievance I have had with many fine-dining establishments. It is this: If restaurateurs want to adorn their menus with baroque descriptions of their food, then they should adhere to them. If a certain ingredient is not available that day, or if the cook wants to experiment with preparation, then the kitchen must inform the waitstaff, so they can inform their customers. Or alternately, if the kitchen wants latitude to experiment with sauces, flavors, and ingredients, then the menu ought to supply simple descriptions and leave it to the diner to ask about details.
At Zin, the misapplication of culinary terminology to explain the food is blatant and can be disappointing for many diners. On the other hand, the finished product can be quite successful, even if it doesn't conform precisely to customer expectations. This was the case with a roasted Cotournix quail entrée I ordered ($18). The roasted quails with herby mushroom-and-bread stuffing, glazed with bacon demi-glace, were a scrumptious and ample-proportioned treat. They were accompanied by wilted baby spinach and crisp cornmeal corncakes (almost like hoecakes). The tastes blended together so effortlessly, the whole ensemble was so delicious, that I was willing to pardon the menu for describing the bread stuffing in the quail as a "ragout" and the fried corncakes as "polenta."
On an even more positive note, I had no objections about the description or finished product on several other dishes I sampled. Their cured salmon pastrami set atop crisp, toasted bread rounds spread with boursin cheese mated adroitly with a piquant, sweet, sun-dried tomato salsa ($8). Balsamic- and pesto-drizzled greens surrounding the tasty crackers added a second layer of flavor to the dish. A special appetizer ($8) of overwhelmingly large size -- a Southwestern-style wrap -- was equally a delight. Tender achiote and cumin-laced beef and pork wrapped in a flour tortilla with cheese, mushrooms, spinach, and accented by a spicy chipotle salsa really could have made a fulfilling dinner. This flamboyant amalgam of foodstuffs had definite flare.
Certainly the talent is there in Zin's kitchen to produce really interesting, flavorful food. The setting is cozy and sophisticated; the service attentive. Their streetside patio is definitely one of the best in Austin and is a perfect place to entertain oneself on a mild afternoon or evening. Both their wine list and their menu imply a real love of experimentation and a taste for the sensual. But sometimes experimentation without structure can fail to crystallize. My sense about Zin is that it is a restaurant whose spirit is in the right place but whose staff may suffer from a simple lack of discipline, especially when it comes to communicating to the customer. No doubt that in time, Zin will grow into the greatness of its namesake.