FOOD- REVIEW- Zinc: Taking a 'bistro' to new levels


In my relatively brief travels in France, I never actually found the sort of bistro that has popped up in the States over the past decade. I did find fast, simple, well-prepared food at modest prices— bistro by definition, if not by name. Some of these were brasseries, some just simple unpretentious prix fixe menu places. Now Charlottesville has half a dozen "bistros," and plenty more French-based restaurants that could fit the definition. 

Zinc is not the bistro of our dreams— ours would never have a flatscreen television, even though the one here is inoffensively tucked away in the spacious bar (in the former office of the service station that was modified for one of Zinc's predecessors, the aptly named Station– which was followed by the short-lived White Orchid).

But we appreciate the simple menu with its core of bistro standards (steak frites, croque monsieur— items that eluded us in France, but not in American bistros). And we appreciate the mod yet functional and somehow— despite indications on the website and drink menu— unpretentious atmosphere inside the former garage, even though the bistro of our dreams would have scarred wooden tables, cracked plaster walls, and exposed oak beams instead of Zinc's polished marble tabletops and brightly colored tile on the vertical of the kitchen and bar enclosures.

But then, you don't eat atmosphere. The fare is bistro-homage, with prices just inside qualifiable bistro range (we appreciate the buck-or-so-less than other local "bistro" prices on menu items and drinks), and the strength is in the simplicity of the menu and quality of the ingredients. Zinc manages to be unpretentious in practice (if not by definition) mostly because of such choices. Locally trained chefs Vu Nguyen (Bizou) and Thomas Leroy (Bizou, Metropolitain) did cooking stints in Chicago and San Francisco respectively before returning to open Zinc in March 2007.

The place was half-full on a recent Saturday night before college students had flown, and the clientele was a pleasant mix of couples who seemed to enjoy escaping the hubbub of the nearby Downtown Mall (or even Belmont) on Zinc's patio with its bar-height black wrought-iron tables streetside, bordered by an evergreen hedge just short (or high) enough to reveal floating heads of passersby. A central circular Greco-Roman fountain complete with pertly breasted muses and gently spurting water happily focuses the sounds away from West Main traffic.

It's hard to imagine a restaurant owner who would turn away the designer martini crowd (and Zinc offers a few in their "drink Zinc" offerings), but happily for the selfish eater, none of that ilk were here tonight.

Our waitress at dinner was kind and enthusiastic, if not a complete scholar of the menu.  After we put in an order for some mussels provencale (which were tender and tasty, if a bit lacking in garlicky zing– and bread for sopping), she prodded us a bit for our entree order until she understood we enjoyed browsing the menu and were in no particular hurry. Otherwise, the service proceeded at a pleasant pace, with no hurry-up or down-time.

On a mid-week lunch visit, my friend Sheila (my former writing teacher) tried the croque monsieur— a bistro barometer. It was tidy; the béchamel sauce had a nice consistency but scanty distribution. The ham and gruyere on an Albemarle Baking Company pain de mie made for an almost foolproof combination. But it was lonely on the plate, thirsty for a bit more béchamel and a bit oversaturated with butter. Our frites, a side order, were crisp and delicious, liberally salted.

Nguyen and Leroy find their best success, fortunately, in their ability to cook meat, fish, and fowl "to a turn." The steak (hangar, an inexpensive, chewy, flavorful cut that has found a new life in American restaurants in the past several years) in their lunch steak salad arrived with a perfect deep reddish brown crust and tastefully medium rare inside, several two-or-three-bite hunks still sizzling on the greens. Herb- (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) and lemon-stuffed black sea bass, presented whole, had the firmness and flavor that only fresh bone-in, head-on fish can have. The duck leg confit— another bistro must-have I never found in France but love regardless— was falling-off-the-bone tender, golden-crisped skin holding its anatomical shape on delivery.

Since it was threatening rain, we sat just inside the open garage door and saw the condiment shelves, tucked away near the register: a small platoon of salt shakers, pepper grinders, ketchup and malt vinegar— may we suggest a caddy of each on every occupied table?

Despite the wonderful steak, my salad's bed of greens, tomatoes, and pickled green beans was a bit tired beneath the meat– and not just because of heat-wilt. The balsamic vinaigrette was unremarkable, a steakless bite of the salad was uninspiring. 

This lack of focus persisted in our dinner salads. While the lardons and goat cheese (toasted on a baguette round) in one, and the roasted beets, sugar-and-cayenne-dusted walnuts and gorgonzola in another, were delicious, the greens lacked vivacity, the dressings had no personality.

Our main dinner courses were beautiful, if somewhat underdressed. The large-grained, olive-flecked Israeli couscous that accompanied Jennie's bass took the dish beyond its Mediterranean base toward a plane that could have been more well-defined only by the addition of something green. The duck's bed of sliced roasted potatoes, garlic, and shiitake mushrooms all contributed to a tan, just-beginning-to-caramelize mildness that could've used a slight acid as a contrast.

Desserts came in large portions that somewhat overwhelmed not only the eaters, but their own best characteristics: oat crumble drowned in a prodigious though very tasty fusion of tart reds. Profiteroles (Albemarle Baking Company again)— three in number, not stale, but not fresh from the oven— were less awash in their tasty, thin dark chocolate sauce, though I had to leave a bit of it on the plate. Both desserts would benefit from a subtly flavored and textured ice cream— and a more carefully composed equilibrium; less could be more here.

Zinc could do worse than define itself by its bistro genre and its headliners— meat, fish, and fowl. The wine, cheese, and baked-goods list— the entire team of suppliers, actually— is quite strong as well. But we suspect that Nguyen and Leroy could sharpen the focus and intensity of their own finishing touches.