Zola Bistro Reviewed
A new friend
by Lee Lawrence
The reasons I choose a particular restaurant can change with time-even from day to day-but often I find a favorite dish or table or server that thrills and comforts and brings me back over and over to the same seat. When I've been in the mood for dependable, I often head downtown to the warm, stylish bar at Café Zola. I'll perch at the curved end of the smooth concrete counter, snug beneath the low ceiling and the plush velvet entrance curtain hugging my back. If I order a martini, the bartender will pour it from an individual shaker, generous enough to top off my glass again once I've sipped most of the cocktail. The antipasto platter or a huge bowl of mussels always promises a bargain, and grilled octopus-a personal favorite-is a regular special.
Now Zola has a new sister-all grown up and cosmopolitan-on Washtenaw Avenue in the new Arbor Hills Crossing shopping center. Named Zola Bistro, she shares her older sibling's sophisticated design sensibility. Without downtown's warm brick walls and divided space, though, the new place-a large open room of glass, steel, concrete, and marble with an undulating scrap wood wall that functions as sculpture-feels more dramatically austere. Owners Hediye Batu and Alan Zakalik have already installed ceiling baffles to address initial complaints about noise levels generated by all those hard surfaces. Our table of five had no trouble conversing on a busy Friday night.
Those generous cocktails have made the trip over to the bistro, and both restaurants now share the same extensive menus for brunch and dinner. Although the mussels remain on the dinner menu, the antipasto platter has been split in three (vegetable, cheese, or meat), and the octopus has attained a permanent spot-at a heftier price for a smaller portion.
The standardization of Café Zola's menus and specials means Zola Bistro will likely please downtown regulars who wander out Washtenaw or who drive over from their suburban homes. (Unfortunately, parking in Arbor Hills'
undersized, awkward lot isn't much better than parking downtown.) The long dinner menu is now heavy on snacks, salads, and small plates, with plenty of pastas and main courses too; specials usually add to the dilemma of choosing. Nonetheless, our table was able to sample a good portion of what the kitchen offers.
Beginning with small plates, peppadew peppers-small, round, sweetened pickled chiles stuffed with lamb merguez sausage and strewn with pine nuts-were a wonderful union of sugar, vinegar, and spice. The shrimp taco-piled with mango, guacamole, and cilantro sauce-was tasty, as were the Vietnamese-style chicken wings, though I would have enjoyed them more if the sauce had actually penetrated the flesh. Kale salad with sharp cheddar and bacon toffee-think bacon glazed brittle style-was delicious, and a warm butternut squash salad with goat cheese, pistachios, pancetta, and bitter greens would have been if the kitchen had roasted the highlighted vegetable long enough.
Entrées that evening were nearly universally successful. One friend, armed with a bit of past experience, insisted on ordering the brick-roasted chicken; flattened for uniform cooking, the half bird was incredibly succulent and moist. Another rewarded herself with marinated lamb chops, grilled a perfect medium rare and partnered with raisin- and almond-flecked spinach. Two other companions sampled the different dimensions of beef-one as a special filet, beautifully cooked and generously sauced with a red wine reduction, the other in a braised short rib dish drizzled with horseradish cream, a Brussels sprout-mushroom-bacon medley on the side. Not feeling so carnivorous, I ordered the cavolo nero-farfalle pasta with kale pesto, roasted cherry tomatoes, and pine nuts. Gnawing delicately on her lamb chop, my friend peered down at my bowl and said, "I think you lost out at this dinner." But once I stirred in some salt and pepper-and then did so again-I enjoyed the simple hominess of the dish.
One might have thought dessert impossible at that point, but we forged on, trying a Nutella-banana crepe and a chocolate brioche pudding. Both were satisfactory, if not outstanding.
Our waitress, though, was outstanding, patient as we chatted and meandered through the menu, trying to narrow our choices. She was knowledgeable and friendly without being intrusive. She brought us wine samples while we debated the bottles and appeared magically when needed.
The bartender who served my husband and me one slow weeknight demonstrated the same qualities, warmly inviting us to settle in against the cold blizzard outside. That second night we had an impressive version-a special appetizer-of an old dish, oysters Rockefeller; I hope it remains wondrous as it wends its way to Zola Bistro's permanent list. The oysters were briny and clean tasting, with a hint of licorice, a slight glaze of spinach and parmesan enhancing rather than smothering the bivalve's natural flavor. The plate of four, shared with my husband, wasn't sufficient; I wished for a dozen of my own. But I resisted, and we moved on to other dishes. I chose shakshuka, a north African dish popularized in Israel, which features an egg poached in a sauce of peppers, onions, and tomatoes; I found Zola's version dull and difficult to eat in its cramped casserole. My husband fared better with another small plate-the butcher's choice-featuring a six-ounce hanger steak on a bed of spinach splashed with chimichurri (parsley-garlic) sauce. We ordered p ommes frites sprinkled with parmesan and rosemary to round out our dinner, and-as most people do when confronted with thin, crispy fries-we devoured them. A tangy lemon ice cream parfait topped off our light dinner and prepared us to reenter the icy cold night.
After so much good food and knowing Café Zola's long-ago start with breakfast crepes and waffles, I found our one breakfast at the Bistro a trifle disappointing-and at $64 for three, plus tip, fairly expensive. (Actually, I find the pricing of all Zola's menus-brunch, dinner, wine, and cocktail-puzzling; many items seem significantly overpriced, others a surprising bargain, with only a few at the Goldilocks just-right figure.) Service again was wonderful, but my buckwheat crepe with mushroom filling was slight and not all that flavorful. Pouring salt on my husband's salmon hash couldn't fix its absence in the initial cooking. My mother enjoyed her crab Benedict, but I found it lackluster. The best dish by far-as beautiful in its simplicity as the oysters Rockefeller-was the classic Belgian waffle we ordered for the table. With a crispy exterior, a moist and tender center, and a tangy flavor enhanced by the maple syrup we poured over it, it was marvelous.
The brunch menu-offered every day, not just on weekends-also includes a dizzying array of lunch items. While the breakfast crowd was decent on the Monday morning we were there, the dining room filled for lunch later, making it obvious many have found reasons to become regulars at Zola Bistro. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to get oysters Rockefeller and the classic waffle during the same meal, but I'll always find something to relish, certain I'll be comfortable and well cared for at this neighborhood branch of a reliable downtown friend.
3030 Washtenaw Avenue, (Arbor Hills Crossing)
Sun.-Thurs. 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 8 a.m.-11 p.m.
Breakfasts $7.75-$15.95, brunch salads $6.95-$14.95, sandwiches and burgers $8.50-$13.95
Dinner snacks, appetizers, and salads $1-$14, pastas and entrées $12-$34
[Originally published in March, 2014.]