LFM: Cafe x2 – Cafe Rustica and Zed Cafe

“Oh no!” Richmonders might say, “ not another 2 cents from a self-important blogger!” Whether Chef Andy really made that comment – I don’t know. All I am going to say is I’m glad to be a blogger because it has opened so many opportunities for me and I love the blogging community. For those who are curious about how the mini-drama of blogs vs. chef unfolded (and folded) in little ole’ Richmond, follow the links to here, here, here, and here.

I’m just here for the food J.

Café Rustica is only a block from where I work. I have been going there since April. I remembered my first experience eating there my boss and I sat at the bar and waited forever for our food. That was okay, because they did set the expectation that because of their small kitchen, service could be slow. Fortunately, I ordered their Potage du jour which was asparagus soup to tide me over. I did not finish it because it was too salty. My salad, “Balerina molta piccola”, was a simple green salad laced with yummy gorgonzola vinaigrette and strewn morsels of roasted chicken.

I couldn’t count the times I went back for takeout but I have dined-in maybe 4 times.  There was one week I went three times, sampling different lunch offerings. The Balerina molta piccola was ordered 2 more times until I decided it always left me hungry. The Schweineschnitzel sandwich was the biggest disappointment. My first reaction when I got it was, “Where’s the pork?” I have also tried the Pollo Asado (roast chicken half) which I thought could use more salt. I usually alternate between the seared fillet of Salmon and Flank steak salad. The salmon was perfectly cooked – and of course how can you go wrong with capers paired with this particular fish. If you don’t like capers, you are out of luck because the salmon is pretty bland and needs the capers to completely round out its flavor. The flank steak was not on their menu, but I had asked them one time if they had a steak salad and they said yes. It was served rare by default, but they were nice enough to cook it to medium for me whenever I requested. The flank steak had the fire-charred taste that brought out the beefy character of this particular cut.

I stopped going for lunch a few weeks ago after they had closed for a summer break. I thought it was becoming an expensive lunch proposition. Anyway, I finally tried their dinner menu last Thursday. Service was very prompt as we were the only guests there besides a person at the bar. I asked about their pork shoulder roast special and our server said “Chef knows his pork.” Okay, I am sold. “Hungry” Hubby had the u-10 scallops. After an appetizer of prosciutto and cantaloupe, our food arrived. My dish was delivered on top of a sizzling platter which they also use for their roast chicken. The first bite was heaven, but as I sliced deeper into the pork, the meat got drier and drier. HH, who had a bite of my dish, said that it had the texture of canned tuna which he expressed very loudly and I had to shush him because we were at the table behind the kitchen. The reason my first forkful was delicious was because it had a layer of fat with it.  HH did like his seafood entrée but I pointed out that, for the server to announce that they were u-10 sized scallops, it kind of defeated that declaration by cutting the scallops horizontally in three. In a dinner portion I would have like to see my scallops whole, plump and perfectly seared. But maybe this was the “rustic” version of the dish so I shall give the chef the benefit of the doubt.

We had three desserts, yes three because I did not know which one I wanted. HH had the chocolate mousse, I had the crème brulee and the carrot cake for take out. Among all three, I liked the chocolate mousse for its extreme chocolate flavor…nicely done! All in all, Café Rustica shows promise and I would continue patronizing their lunch menu since it is convenient and well above in quality than my other lunch jaunts. Their dinner prices are very reasonable but the dinner itself did not quite impress.

Now on to Zed.  When HH and I first stepped into the restaurant, I was aware of how my sandals made loud clacking sounds on the concrete floor. The place had a minimalist air to it and frankly, I felt chilled. Looking at the wine list, HH got annoyed. It seemed every restaurant we’ve been to lately had an anti-Napa mentality. What can I say? We both love our big Cabernets over wimpy French wines. There I said it …please don’t throw rocks at me. (We’ve been through an afternoon of French wine education at the CIA and let me tell you HH and I had a sour stomachs after the class – we tried…we really tried …)

            The pork special – sweet tea brined loin- was taunting me. This time I asked our server if it was lean or had a layer of fat. She looked disconcerted and was not quite sure how to answer me…and I quickly assured her I wanted the fat because I hated dry pork – she said it had a layer of fat and she never had a dry one. Hoping she was right, I ordered it. We had pretty good appetizers. HH had the mesclun salad with blueberries and I had the gnocchi with mushrooms. I always say no-chi instead of noki whenever I order gnocchi and have to still my laughter whenever a server corrects me.

            Our food arrived. I did not know what to make of it especially HH’s dish of strip loin. The steak was already sliced for him and he was not only annoyed this time, he was fuming. He told me in a controlled whisper “One of the joys of eating steak is cutting through the meat itself” He felt cheated, as if that right was taken away from him. My pork was also sliced for me and I could already see how dry it was – oh well. There was nary a layer of fat in sight. I wondered if the server misunderstood me and thought I did not want the fat.  The seasoning of my pork was very good but I could not ignore the way it slid down my throat – scratchy. HH’s steak had a strong garlic taste from the chimichurri sauce which was very zesty. Both our dishes were lukewarm in temperature and I couldn’t imagine how it could have gotten cold so fast as the place was not very busy. And the biggest gripe we had was the size of the side dish – too much. My peach compote covered the entire plate. I would have preferred just a little of that and some grilled vegetables. HH had his entire plate covered in mashed sweet potato and black beans. It really did not look appetizing.

            Our sweet endings weren’t very sweet either. If you put ice cream beside a flourless chocolate torte, you better make sure that the torte is warm. Otherwise the alchemy that takes place of the heat melting the ice cream into some unworldly foil for the chocolate ain’t gonna happen. Maybe that was not the intention of their dessert but that was what I imagined I was going to have. And HH, poor guy, his espresso was not hot and had no foam.

            I understand how Zed Café is trying to implement this whole concept of creating dishes from locally-sourced ingredients and I really admire that. I’ve been to San Francisco restaurants where this idea has been nurtured for years and they totally get it.  At Zed I get the feeling that the notion is there like some grandiose plan but it falls flat because some key elements are missing.

            And seriously, is it really too much to ask for a pork dish as sublime as this?

6 thoughts on “LFM: Cafe x2 – Cafe Rustica and Zed Cafe

  1. …and to add to lack of Napa wines in wanna-be "French" restaurants, if the objective is to cook french-style by presenting french wines, why not do so with the food as well? The side-dish size to the main-course size was disproportionate…too much side-dish!

  2. Veron,
    Your critiques are delicious and this one is no exception. Even when you take issue with a dish, I enjoy your analysis immensely. One day, I'll get a chance to hit up both of these Cafes and find out for myself. Now, I'm going to go and try and talk myself outta emailing you an order for more macarons. If that doesn't work, I'm going to lift weights in preparation for the indulgence.
    Jason

  3. How was the service? we've had many SLOW experiences at Zed's that we are wary to go back. One lunch took 70 minutes. no apps, no drinks, no desserts. 70 minutes, half of the place was empty.

  4. Aww, I am bummed that the flourless torte wasn't warm next to the ice cream! Isn't that the main reason to have it a la mode–to have the deliciously melty ice cream/cake contrast!? I think your critiques are well put–you took the time to look at many aspects of the service and food.

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