Rather than Italian or Sushi, my favorite cuisine has long been New American. Ever since my first time at Gramercy Tavern (or maybe even earlier), enjoying simply prepared, homestyle food from local sources has become a dining priority for me. In my opinion, restaurant items prepared in this style simply sing brighter.
Several chefs adhere to this type of cooking, including the now TV-star Tom Colicchio (who was the original chef at Gramercy), my favorite Seattle chef Tom Douglas, and Chef Judy Rodgers of the Zuni Café in San Francisco. According to her website, Chef Judy “has been a pioneer of simple and casual American fare...” She once worked as lunch chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley (an excellent thing), and in 2004 she was named outstanding chef by the James Beard Foundation for her impressive Zuni Café cookbook. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Zuni was a place I wanted to dine at for ages, especially to try the chef’s acclaimed raison d'être, the roast chicken with bread salad (pictured above, oh and here's the recipe).
Probably around 2002, I visited San Francisco for a reason I can’t recall (oh well!). A few weeks before the trip I set up a night to see my pal Ed, formerly of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Ed and I met ten years earlier in NYC, where he was one of my clients during the Broadway days and we became friends. He’d recently moved to San Francisco so I looked him up.
Back in the day, Ed and I always had a grand time hanging around "the slope" and the city and going to parties with our mutual friends. He and his friend Dan were even the only two people to complete my last New York City clue hunt, “The Subway Hunt,” in its original form. These hunts usually took place above ground whenever I moved to a new neighborhood, but I hadn't moved in awhile so this one was in and around the subway system in two boroughs. Ed and Dan gave it a dry run for me on September 8th in 2001 since they’d be busy on the official hunt date of September 15th. The test went really well, they had fun, however since one quarter of The Subway Hunt was in the World Trade Center, the official hunt on September 15 was of course canceled; the route was reworked and occurred the following spring. But Ed and his friend Dan did run the hunt in the World Trade Center on September 8th three days before its demise, which we all thought was pretty interesting.
So when I flew out for a visit to San Fran about a year after Ed moved there he seemed quite happy to make a plan with me for dinner with his new California boyfriend. When we spoke I made one request: since they live in San Francisco, can we possibly have dinner at the Zuni Café because they have this chicken dish I really want to try….? Sure!, Ed said. Excellent, I replied.
We met at Zuni and had lots of long-lost hellos and hugs. The restaurant was lovely too, very inviting and open, modern yet homey. They sat us in one of the small rooms tucked away up some stairs so it felt like we were dining in someone’s House Beautiful beach house. The menus were dropped and there it was, the roast chicken with bread salad… for two? Oh. It’s a whole chicken for two people, hmm. And $45, woop! So I casually asked if Ed or his boyfriend would possibly be interested in splitting the dish with me, since it's for two, and since it’s amazing and the restaurant's signature dish and I’d heard about it forever, and I don’t live here and didn’t realize it was for two people. Ed looked at his boyfriend without missing a beat and said, “I’m going to have the halibut.” The boyfriend looked at Ed and said, “I’m going to have the halibut too!”
My incredulousness suppressed to a tic, I responded gently, “Really? If you both want halibut can’t you split one halibut entrée and then someone also share the chicken with me? I won’t have a chance to come to this restaurant again because I live in New York…” Ed's facial expression looked sort of like one of Cinderella's evil stepsisters when he said, “Why don’t you order the chicken for yourself and take home the leftovers? You can eat it on the plane tomorrow (chuckle).” “But I’m staying at a hotel. I don’t have a refrigerator.” He looked at the menu again and said regally, “Well I’M going to have the HALibut.” Ed’s boyfriend agreed.
This lead to some quick contemplation on etiquette and friendship and kindness. If the situation had been reversed, I would have automatically assumed that a friend of mine is also a food friend. However, if that friend turns out to be a food foe, doesn’t that mean that person isn’t your friend so much after all? I mean, without any explanation or attempts at trying for a middle ground. For instance, was the dish I wanted to share liver and onions, was it pickled pigs feet? No. Were these people vegetarians, vegans, pescetarians? Not at all. Did they just not like chicken, or me? Maybe all I needed was a little compassion or explanation, which did not come. Or could I have ordered that dish on my own for $45? I suppose, but I don't believe in egregious food wasting. Plus $45 for an entrée was a bit extravagant too.
I saw Ed with new eyes that night while eating some other entrée I don't remember. He must have stopped being my friend somewhere along the line, perhaps before that night--then why meet at all?--and I’ll never know why.
Even a year or so later back on Broadway at the end of the the Patti LuPone "Sweeney Todd" revival, guess who filtered out onto the street behind me: Ed and his boyfriend! How weird is that? In a happy sort of shock I introduced my friend to them, chatted away and oh no it took too long to realize that both Ed and his boyfriend wanted nothing to do with me. They seemed almost offended I talked to them at all! Once the new truth became obvious I said bye (which was ignored) and left promptly, promising myself to never make the same error in judgment again.
A few months after that I moved to Los Angeles, where I started working at USC. Four years after that, or last month in April, I flew up to San Mateo, CA to attend a conference with a colleague. We decided to take an evening train trip north to San Francisco one night. During the conference my colleague said, “I don’t know what you had in mind for dinner in San Francisco, but there’s a place you might like called Zuni Café…” Do you know I hadn’t thought about Zuni since; probably blocked it out to keep some internal peace. I was thrilled to hear the suggestion, said as much to my colleague and set the record straight! “If we go, there’s this menu item I need to try, but it’s for two, the roast chicken and bread salad. Would you be open to splitting that with me?” He said yes. We booked a reservation.
At the restaurant, the official menu item is written as thus: “Chicken for two roasted in the brick oven; warm bread salad with red mustard greens, scallions, currants, and pine nuts 48.00 (approximately 1 hour).”
Bring it ON! We ordered the moment we sat down in that lovely space on Market Street, you know because it takes an hour. What to do while awaiting our masterpiece? Eat. Yes I ordered some oysters and we each had a salad. And what a big and filling salad! My scrumptious Caesar was much bulkier than my colleague’s delicate micro-greens since several long and garlicy crouton planks were not included in his.
I’m mentioning this only because when the chicken came, I was full. It was a lot of food yet, no surprise, it turned out to be better than I could have hoped for. This famous restaurant dish not only looked great, it tasted like your Mom's best chicken in a Thomas Kinkade painting on a cloud-train express to where all food dreams come true. The chicken was extra flavorful and tender due to brining, and the skin was crisp and sprinkled with herbs. The warm bread salad soaked up all the chicken’s savory juices, and tasting that soft artisanal bread with chicken gravy and greens mingled with the other accoutrements, I can’t tell you how good it was. Let’s just say it was definitely worth the wait.
Now at first when the dish arrived I believe my colleague took a chicken thigh, and I started with a piece of breast and a leg. Me already full does not compute! But post-chicken thigh and a bite of bread salad later my colleague announced HE was full! Ok see I am the Energizer Bunny of food-in-front-of-me-deliciousness-cannot-be-denied and can keep on going. But to him, full means full. Done! Done? With "the chicken”?! Hey dude that just means more for me, so I forged on, eating more chicken and more bread salad on and on. I wished my little glass of white wine would have magically broken down the proteins in my stomach quicker, but it didn’t do that, it just tasted good and lent a nice tough of acidity to the meal.
Ok, ok after a few more pieces I was done too. We sat, we smiled. There were two small pieces of chicken left, along with a big dab of sultry bread salad. We sighed. I felt guilty looking at the leftover chicken. I encouraged my counterpart to eat more, but he wouldn’t. Then the flashback came, the burning memory of my first visit to Zuni with Ed, that OTHER visit. It moved me to feel a bit petulant, that I had to wait all that time for this grand fabulous wunderbar chicken meal. All this time, all this travel. Well I couldn't stand it and refused to leave a piece of chicken, especially not two pieces of chicken, behind. And with that, I finished it. Every bite. We confirmed later that my colleague really did only enjoy one piece of that bird, which means I in effect ate the whole chicken (and warm bread salad, and a Caesar salad, and oysters, ok and a little bit of chocolate pots de creme). And I would do it again, damn it!
Second chances are interesting things. The weird part? The colleague who dined with me at Zuni last month was named Ed too. So I went to this restaurant twice with two different Ed’s, and with two very different results. This year the universe gave me a replay. It’s funny how life works out sometimes.
Until we eat again,