In the early days of Cafe Zola, we would order our crepes and watch them being made for us through a little window at the end of the coffee bar. This was before the big weekend brunch crowds, when Zola was more of a proper cafe. The evolution since then has been remarkable, from coffeehouse-creperie to weekend brunch hot spot and, finally, a place with upscale pan-European dinner service. It still feels like a cafe in some ways–white tablecloths and candles don’t really turn a casual cafe into an elegant restaurant, and the slightly rickety tables and chairs leave a shortage in the atmosphere department. But as far as the food that comes to your table, Zola hasn’t missed a beat.
Chef Alan Zakalik’s dinner menu is big and bold; he likes flavors that really wow you. Expect rich pastas, assertively seasoned meats, and sauces that demand your attention. This is a cuisine that can take a robust wine pairing like a zinfandel or a cabernet (though one should be mindful of too much robustness in one night).
Some might say Zakalik cooks with a heavy hand, but we liked the ingenuity of his preparations: even lighter dishes like the wild scallops with wine and beet reduction–one of our favorites–ask to be eaten slowly. The sauce was alluringly sweet but not so sweet that it overpowered the tender scallops. It was a sensual, rich meal, but not one that left you feeling glutted.
Other dishes require a bigger appetite: the portobello ravioli arrives with a chili-rubbed, goat cheese-stuffed salmon filet that had Zakalik’s signature preparation written all over it–satisfying, inventive, lots of flavor. And the penne with sausage and Chianti sauce, which we chose as a second course one night, was irresistible. You see here how Zakalik manages–expertly, artfully–to walk the line between hearty and delicate: the sausage comes crumbled rather than in chunks, the peas are bright green and still firm. But on the table, it’s easy to forget all that and dig in. You just want to eat it all and not share.
In fact, it was while eating these pasta dishes (which we did share) that we realized what dinner at Cafe Zola is all about: upscale comfort food for adults. We’ve seen the same trend in other Ann Arbor restaurants, like Zingerman’s Roadhouse: take a selection of comfort food favorites and treat them with great creativity and expertise. But Zola’s menu goes one step further to bring us not only comfort foods made fancy but upscale dishes brought down to earth, made homey. Here’s a place where you can have your whole fish baked in parchment paper in a way that doesn’t scare you (if you’re timid about that sort of thing). Under Zakalik’s hand, the food might be delicate, but it’s never dainty. Whether it’s from a nice place like Zola or from your grandmother’s kitchen, comfort food never calls attention to itself–eating it, you don’t need to think about much of anything other than how delicious it is, and maybe–maybe–whether you’re being a little too indulgent.
Other delicious (though potentially overindulgent) crowd-pleasers we tried were the chimichurri steak with roasted potatoes (chimichurri of the green variety, that is–flat leaf parsley made into a thick, tangy sauce) and the Tuscan steak with fries. The Tuscan preparation was lovely, a rub of mint, rosemary, oregano, and garlic. The heaping pile of fries coated with rosemary and Parmesan was pure decadence.
We savored the pan-roasted mero in miso, a filet of creamy white fish that fell apart under the fork, served with jasmine rice (a bit too heavily seasoned with sesame oil) and broccolini that balanced the sweet miso. Although this was certainly a special dish with a beautiful presentation, we learned later that mero is a kind of Hawaiian grouper that can be sustainable or not depending on where it’s caught, according to Seafood Watch. Zakalik’s distributors tell him theirs passes this test.
Because almost any big party will order either the chicken or the salmon, we tried each. The brick-roasted chicken was a dish made for its sauce, a good lemon sauce on a relatively dry and spiritless bird. The salmon with leeks was better, rich with its butter-braised leeks and topped with both creme fraiche and beurre blanc. We didn’t agree about this dish–one of us wanted something more exciting, the other thought it was fine–but it’s a nice choice for tamer diners.
Salads and starters aren’t where you’ll find Zola’s best work, though a few items do deserve mention, like the grilled Spanish octopus served with chutney, maybe the best octopus we’ve had in Michigan. You’ll have to look to the specials board to find the octopus; it’s usually, but not always, available. On the regular menu, the blue crab cakes are the best appetizer, made with much more crab than cake, and served with a pineapple salsa and a smoky paprika aioli.
There weren’t many real flops among the dishes we ordered. The hearts of romaine salad was one of them, just a few lettuce leaves on a plate with some shavings of Parmesan cheese and a sweet vinaigrette. This dish highlighted one minor reservation we had reading Zola’s dinner menu–there is virtually no acknowledgment of seasonality or local produce. Talking with Zakalik later, we learned that he is indeed dedicated to having local foods on his menu–they’re just not often mentioned as such. Be sure to ask your (typically very helpful) server if you’re interested in the restaurant’s sourcing.
Any disappointments we had were countered by the intelligent and accommodating service. During one visit, a lemon tagliarini pasta with a delicious flavor but a mealy texture was whisked away. The pasta came off the bill, and dessert was on the house. Service of this caliber isn’t easy to find, and it speaks volumes about the -behind-the-scenes work responsible for such thoughtfulness.
Finally, while it’s hard at Cafe Zola to leave room for dessert, you would be wise to try. The chocolate fudge with vanilla ice cream was a lumpy disappointment, but the pear almond frangipane tart, made in house, was exquisite, sweet without being cloying, a nice ending to a big meal. Or go for the almond torte, layers of rum-soaked pound cake and marscapone cheese–enough for a table of four to share. And then there are the sweet crepes for dessert, but we passed on them–they’re great, but they now have a lot of competition on this fantastic menu. And, really, they’re just not as fun now that we can’t watch them being made (the window is now curtained). It’s a small sacrifice, and one we’re certainly willing to bear in exchange for one of the most enjoyable dinner spots around.
112 W. Washington, 769-2730
Brunch: daily 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner: Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5-11 p.m. Appetizers $7-$15, entrees $15-$29, desserts $7, brunch items $6-$14