Zuni Café, an iconic San Francisco dining establishment, has menu items that are so beloved that they have been a staple on the menu since the restaurant’s opening in 1979. Inside of this narrow building on the busy Market Street corridor, it is surprisingly easy to find intimacy in the labyrinth of rooms inside. The name Zuni comes from a native American tribe, so the food originally had a unadorned and authentic approach. The tastes of the menu have since evolved to take on a more France and Italian culinary styles.
What brought Zuni grand recognition, however, is the whole roast chicken for two. Three or four people could actually enjoy this massive plate of food. The perfectly seasoned and roasted chicken with crispy skin and juicy meat, rests on top of a bread salad. For the bread salad, think of Thanksgiving stuffing, but with really good Acme bread (not stale croutons), dunked in fatty chicken drippings, flavored with scallions, garlic, dried currants, pine nuts and baked to perfection. Some mustard greens also add garnish and a contrasting taste of bitterness to cut the richness of this sizable plate of mouthwatering deliciousness.
Zuni knows that the secret to simple cooking is always quality ingredients and patience. The chickens are small (no larger than 3 pounds), organic, and antibiotic-free. The small bird ensures that crispy skin will be a part of every bite. The seasoning is also simple, with just sea salt, pepper, and a sprig of either rosemary or thyme, but the chicken is left to preserve for three days in the refrigerator. The chicken, cooked on extremely high heat, begins browning after just 17 minutes, and then it is placed in an oak wood-burning oven to give it a smokey flavor. Turning it upside down for even browning and distribution of the juices, the chicken sits for another 10 minutes until it is placed on the bread salad. It’s no wonder why this dish makes the Top 100 Things You Have to Eat in San Francisco Before You Die list, year after year.
The roasted chicken dwarfed the other dishes in both size and taste. We tried fried chicories (puntarelle) and fried grapes for the first time with the piccolo fritto dish. We also shared the nettle soup with Piena di Napoli squash, farro verde, and long-cooked tomatoes. Though tasty, neither of these dishes left an impression.
For dessert, we shared warm persimmon pudding with walnuts and brandy crème anglaise. I am so glad that persimmons are back in season as they have such a versatile use and go great in breads and bread pudding! We also ordered the Gâteau Victoire with whipped cream, which former chef and co-owner Judy Rodgers has kept on the menu since the 1980’s. Unlike most flourless chocolate cakes which are dense and robust, this one is soft and has a fine granular texture. Not overly sweet, this is a subtle surprise of a chocolate cake.