Thursday, March 31, 2011

ZUT! On Fourth - Sunshine, Sandwiches & Cocktails

BALT - Bacony Tomato-y Perfection!
 Though I am a big proponent of Oakland and its resurgence in the culinary community, there is something to be said about the food that can be had in neighboring Berkeley. When Alice Waters first began her crusade for all things fresh and local and the abundant use of creative flavor profiles, no one could have anticipated the tidal wave of after-effects emanating from that initial splash. As the initial swells began to ripple, Alice was also among the first wave of Chefs to elevate plating to an art form. The reverberations of this movement in the Bay Area’s culinary ethos have been something akin to a sonic boom. The culture of eating that she and others with vision started has survived decades. What once was a ripple, became a pounding wake, and ultimately resulted in a tsunami of magnificent food establishments springing up all over Berkeley. 

Fourth Street contained some of the first offshoots to appear, including the Fourth Street Grill, which ironically is the site of the new restaurant Zut!.  Fact is, over the years it has seen businesses arrive and thrive — and unfortunately — falter and disappear. Nevertheless, the Bay Area continues to benefit from this constant expansion of the food industry and it expands and radiates its tasty goodness into the community.

Meatballs, Cheese & Avocado

The particular Berkeley establishment that is the topic of today’s article is one of Fourth Street’s newest additions: Zut! The owners, Denny Abrams and Rick Millikan, define their menu as regional Mediterranean. This menu is as interpreted by executive chef Jim Wimborough, who is a graduate of, among others, Boulevard & Rubicon in San Francisco, as well as Evvia Estiatorio in Palo Alto. Wimborough is a talented Chef, and the evidence of this skill is in the food.

Zut! represents the first time its owners have opened a restaurant. Though Abrams-Millikan has been at the forefront of developing much of Fourth Street’s shopping district, as well as designing the look of several of its restaurants — including O’ Chame, Bette’s Oceanview Diner and Tacubaya — this is the first time the pair has opened an eatery. One has to give them credit for moxie, since the recession has hit Fourth Street hard, closing several establishments over the past several years. Part of that may be due to the lack of any real parking. Any destination that is this difficult to reach to begin with, ultimately begins by having something to prove. It needs to be that much better than all of its competition.

Zut! may very well rise to this challenge. It is certainly worth a trip, despite its accessibility issues. Several weeks ago, the BH and I ate at Zut! and I think we will make our way there again. Particularly now that we’ve finally gotten a dose of Spring here in our little enclave by the Bay. Zut! is uniquely designed to feature good weather, with a main dining area that features beautiful European-style windows that open onto the street, as well as a massive skylight in the ceiling that features a peek at heaven when opened. What genius decorator thought to include heaven in the mix? The design of the room itself is seriously brilliant in its wide-open and welcoming simplicity.

Our meal began with cocktails. I had a Maltese, which was a nice light combination of Grey Goose Vodka, grapefruit juice, lemon, mint, and ouzo. The acidity in the grapefruit juice and the lemon complimented the mint well, and the hint of licorice that resonated on the palate was just delightful. A subtly fabulous combination of flavors. The BH had their Sangria, which was unlike any Sangria I have experienced in the past. My guess is that this version is what was intended when the drink was originally invented, before the eighties and mixes and cheap, easy red wine bastardized an otherwise heavenly concoction. What I tasted at Zut! was a rich, vibrant red wine whose flavors had been enhanced beautifully by the essences of fruit juice without losing any of the wine’s natural body. Excellent.

Wrapped in Flavor

We share a plate of the Lamb Meatballs, a savory, moist ball of tasty that arrived with a few slices of pita, avocado and a fresh & tangy tomato sauce. The sauce was likewise flavorful, a lovely combination of well-balanced nice spices rounded out by the acidity of the tomatoes.

For our mains, the BH had the Bill Niman Roasted Turkey Wrap, which presented itself as a lovely concoction of red bell pepper, dill and creme fraiche. Ordinarily the BH will go out of his way to avoid a bell pepper, but this was so well balanced, and the pepper so subtle, he ate it mostly intact. It was a simple mixture, but nonetheless successful. I myself ordered the “BALT” which is basically a Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato with avocado. The combination of the gently toasted slices of thick ACME bread, sliced farm style at almost an inch deep, layered lovingly with healthy slabs of applewood smoked bacon, romaine lettuce, and sweet, ripe tomato. Over this was spread a house made aioli, more subtle than a mayonnaise but maintaining the necessary familiarity of oil & egg flavor that plays like nothing else against the bacon. This was nothing less than a perfect sandwich. Memorable enough that I’m still fantasizing about another bite.

Pressed for time, we didn’t linger for dessert. Perhaps that is a treat for another day. Either way, we will most certainly return, and probably while the sun is shining to take advantage of the wonderful airy decor. You should go yourself, check it out, and as always, Bon Appetit!

1820 4th Street
(between Virginia St & Hearst Ave)
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 644-0444

Tables: adequate
Noise: moderate
Cost: moderate