The Austin Chronicle

Brunch, Dinner, and Dessert Theatre

The drama of the Chez Zee menu

Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, July 9, 2004, Food

Chez Zee

5406 Balcones, 454-2666

Monday-Thursday, 11am-10:30pm; Friday, 11am-12mid; Saturday, 9am-12mid; Sunday, 9am-10pm

When the annual restaurant poll results were tabulated in May, I noticed Chez Zee had made a very strong showing in several categories. Once it was on my mind, I realized it had been quite some time since I'd visited the popular Northwest neighborhood bistro. I immediately put it on my schedule. Many menu items remain the same, and the pastry case still beckons with an abundant array of delights, but there have also been some changes. Proprietor Sharon Watkins' theatrical background is still very much in evidence at Chez Zee, and her stage has some new embellishments. As guests approach the restaurant, they are greeted by a whimsical neon-enhanced portrait of a necktie-wearing rabbit perched high in a tree. The cheerful new sign was created by the talented team of Rory Skagen, Dana Younger, and Kevin Collins at Blue Genie Art Industries, based on original menu art by Sarah Higdon. The rabbit oversees a newly enlarged domain.

In September of 2003, Watkins took over a limestone building directly north of the restaurant and turned it into the Gallery Room, an attractive space that can accommodate up to 100 people for private parties and special events. The Gallery is decorated with revolving shows by local artists, making it yet another venue where Watkins can demonstrate her longtime support for the local arts community. The space between the two buildings is now an inviting patio garden where guests wait to be seated inside or enjoy drinks and appetizers in the shady al fresco setting. The bar, the glamorous pastry case, and a blond grand piano are the centerpieces in the main dining room. Some of Austin's finest jazz piano professionals perform here weekly (see the restaurant's Web site for a schedule). Art also lines these walls, balloons hang from the ceiling, and the windows are draped with tiny twinkling lights. Visually, it's a very busy stage.

The two things for which Chez Zee is most renowned are the dessert selection and the weekend brunch. Both of these accolades date back to the restaurant's early days as one of several Chez Fred outlets, the homegrown early-Eighties chain that combined the concept of the French bakery with that of the American cafe. The northwest location had the reputation as a power breakfast spot, as well as a late-night dessert destination. Though Watkins has long since made the restaurant her own with an eclectic American menu tinged with Cajun and Southwestern influences, she wisely capitalized on the established strengths as her main attractions. These days, Chez Zee pancakes get mentioned in USA Today, and the voluptuous Crème Brûlée French Toast shows up in an award-winning breakfast cookbook. The elegant specialty is so popular, in fact, it's now possible to buy loaves of the French toast to take home, $8.95 for 1 pound and $18.95 for 3.

I invited a group of friends to join me at Chez Zee for brunch recently. My guests sipped delightful frozen Peach Bellinis ($4.95), and we all enjoyed warm, flaky croissants with the signature strawberry butter while perusing the large menu. Lucky for me as a reviewer, our choices demonstrated the depth and breadth of the brunch menu. My Lobster and Shrimp Omelet ($15.50) was chock-full of sweet, gently cooked shellfish plus artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. The daintily thin omelet was napped with a creamy basil pesto sauce and featured a side of crispy home fries.

The Toasted Pecan Belgian Waffle Platter ($11.95) served with warm (imitation) maple syrup is a generous dish paired with a choice of two eggs, bacon, or sausage. For Tex-Mex lovers, the Zee Migas ($11.50) offer tomatoes, onions, and tortilla pieces folded into scrambled eggs topped off with a spicy queso, plus fresh fruit and the good home fries. For those more attuned to lunch than breakfast, try the Spinach Salad With Warm Bacon Dressing ($9.95). The salad is crisp, fresh, and visually appealing. It can be topped with chicken, shrimp, or salmon, or paired with a cup or bowl of the soup du jour. This particular day, a cup of tomato basil soup offered all the flavors of a warm summer garden.

Though the portions were hearty and we were more than satisfied, no trip to Chez Zee is complete without dessert, so we shared three around the table. They are dynamic, statuesque, and very tasty: Coco Leches Cake ($6.95) is Chez Zee's twist on the tres leches trend, with four milk-soaked layers enrobed in delicate frosting, dusted with toasted coconut, and drizzled with caramel; Tiramisu Cheesecake ($6.95) with an espresso-infused filling encased in dainty ladyfingers; and Orange Sponge Cake ($5.95), another four-layer tower of orange-scented layers in velvety orange butter cream. It's difficult to pick a favorite from such an embarrassment of riches.

Good service is an important component to any successful restaurant operation, and the staff at Chez Zee know how to play their parts. Our server was friendly and well-informed about the menu items. Even though the brunch was packed with hungry diners, our server and those around us maintained their composure, making sure each table got personal service and didn't get lost in the throng of Sunday guests. Our drinks were refilled and plates removed in timely fashion without intrusion into our conversation.

A follow-up visit for dinner wasn't nearly as satisfying, what with musty, off-tasting chutneys on both the Pecan Crusted Brie ($6.95) and the Maryland Crab Cakes ($8.95), and a downright odd raisin sauce on a perfectly good piece of Sea Bass. The Chicken Fried Sirloin ($12.95) with a good house side Caesar Salad ($1.25 extra) and a toothsome vegetable sauté saved the evening from disaster, however. Chez Zee is a long-running success story, soon to be 20 years old, which is a landmark for any production. Though there might be missteps among the supporting players from time to time, the main attractions remain as strong as ever. end story

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