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03/08 How To Exorcize Ubuntu: Eat at Zuzu; Tasty Tapas in Downtown Napa

opinionatedchef Apr 10, 2008 12:22 PM

"Finally. Real food, interesting robust flavors, generous portions." That's what we said as we tasted our first small plates at Zuzu, the day after our Ubuntu fiasco.Of course, we were still hungry from the night before, so we ordered quite a few things.( FYI they're not great about updating their web menus so don't count on web menu items being available.) They change their menu 3x month.

Favs were not the beef chimichurri or moroccan lamb plates, both of which were just somehow lacking. Our highlights were the:

Rancho Gordo Red Lima Beans(forget those dreadful green ones from your childhood; these are another bean entirely)with chorizo, saffron, pimenton

shaved artichoke portobello salad w/ lemon truffle vngtte.

quinoa salad of smoked duck breast, dried figs, walnut vngtte.

chilaquiles of corn tortillas dipped in a in a light red mole and layered with goat's eye beans and chicken, and topped w/ poached egg

shrimp with garlic and pimenton (La Vera, for you chefs, as it's sweeter than La Chinata)


The talented chef, Angela, opened the restaurant 6 years ago, went away awhile and returned to the helm 4 years ago. hoorah! The new 'Riverwalk' , part of the regeneration of downtown Napa, has just taken down its construction fences, so the public can begin to enjoy it. The amphitheater part of it is directly across from Zuzu and the second floor dining room's large arched windows look out onto this new park.

We'll be back ,for sure, next year -on our annual Cal. foodie vaca.And I know we'll be excited to see Napa becoming a more interesting town as projects proceed, like the Riverwalk and nearby planned buildings and hotels, Copia, and The Oxbow Market etc.

  1. rworange Apr 10, 2008 02:25 PM

    I object.

    I like green lima beans ... a lot.

    829 Main St, Napa, CA 94559

    1. maria lorraine Apr 10, 2008 03:36 PM

      I'm sorry to report I had a different experience.

      Our waiter was found chatting with other waitstaff in a group, and it took many tries to actuallly have him wait on us. When we sat down at the bar to wait for our table, the
      bartender was rude. The food came in small portions, and wasn't tasty or well-executed,
      especially for what we paid. Disappointing all around.

      8 Replies
      1. re: maria lorraine
        opinionatedchef Apr 10, 2008 09:34 PM

        Uggh, what a bummer. Always good to reference the approx. date of your experience (last month; last fall, etc.)to have your post be the most effective.

        On the rare occasion when I have had a service person be incompetent or really rude/attitudy , I have actually spoken with the manager and asked for a different server. This happened to us in nyc last xmas, and the manager immediately gave us over to a better waiter. Our discomfort and anger quickly disappeared; we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves; and hopefully, the server learned something.

        It sounds like you had a real double whammy, though, so you may have felt that your happiness was not salvageable/ not worth trying to improve.

        p.s. were any of the dishes I mentioned included in the plates you didn't like?

        1. re: opinionatedchef
          maria lorraine Apr 10, 2008 11:42 PM

          I'm in the food and wine biz here in the Napa Valley, and I am able to separate out bad service from a single waiter, and bad service as an overall restaurant behavior. Further, I’m able, as most CHers are, to separate service in the resto from the food. I know when to cut a resto slack when they're in the weeds, if that's the case.

          But that wasn't the case as Zuzu. It seemed at Zuzu the waitstaff was busy having a good time chatting and yucking it up in a corner of the restaurant for some time – and the service problem, on that evening particularly, suffered from that.

          So it seemed as though complaining nicely would have fallen on false ears. Our waiter had to ask us the same questions about what we ordered three times, forgot to bring water three times – his short term memory was shot. Worse, we saw our prepared food waiting to picked up and delivered to our table (we had a direct view of the pickup window), and it sat and sat. It was fairly early, the restaurant wasn’t crowded. Our waiter was simply unaware. The bartender was flat out rude when we arrived and wanted to order a couple of glasses of wine.

          The shrimp pimenton dish that you also had and the lamb weren’t developed as dishes or concepts, and there wasn’t much of either on the plate, even for a tapas/small plate item. In both dishes, the flavor development and spicing structure that would have made the dish distinctive wasn't there. And then came the bill. High for what we got, and for what we endured.

          Since my visit, I've heard much the same said from others here in the valley.
          And if you've read my other posts, you'll know that I offer high praise of many other Napa restaurants at all price points.

          But Zuzu is a DNR -- Do Not Return.

          1. re: maria lorraine
            Missmoo Apr 15, 2009 10:04 AM

            When did this happen, Maria?

            1. re: Missmoo
              maria lorraine Apr 20, 2009 09:00 PM

              I'm sorry, I don't remember. I just know that I'm aghast at anyone who chooses to spend their food dollars at Zazu, knowing that there is far better elsewhere for the same cost.

              The waiters at Zazu do seem to use lots of herb.

              1. re: maria lorraine
                Dan Wodarcyk Apr 21, 2009 05:54 PM

                Your observations are after only one visit?

                1. re: Dan Wodarcyk
                  maria lorraine Apr 22, 2009 12:58 AM

                  We have been there three times. We had a couple of glasses of wine at the bar and were waited upon by a surly bartender who liked to yell. The second time, we ate there and were incredibly disappointed and had the same bartender. (See above post.) We also went in another time, and didn't see a server for more than 15 minutes so we left. After all that, I then asked around the Valley to see if others had had similar experiences, with the food, its cost, and their service. They had. So, it's a DNR for me. How about you?

                  1. re: maria lorraine
                    Dan Wodarcyk Apr 22, 2009 10:49 AM

                    No, ZuZu is a DR (do return) for me. I've been going since they opened. Your service comments aside, which surprises me because I've found it to be one of the most tightly managed places in the Valley, their chef and their menu is what keeps me coming back. Many items have been mentioned in this thread, and I'll throw in their Queso Frito, Boquerones, Paella (which changes daily) and Bacalao. One of the only places to find Pimientos de Padron during the summer in the Valley. Also, I've heard opinions from many, locals and non-locals alike, and most are favorable. Price wise, the majority of their dishes are $10 and under, yes tapas size, yet very much on par for a place of that type in Napa. Although they're not trying to create an extremely authentic Spanish tapas restaurant, compared to places in say Barcelona, their chef has done a very good job at creating a Wine Country influenced tapas menu.

                    1. re: Dan Wodarcyk
                      maria lorraine Apr 22, 2009 10:56 PM

                      Thanks for your report. Odd, our experiences have been so different. I am not a regular there, nor wish to become one after my experiences. Which are, as profoundly disappointing as yours are pleasing.

      2. Xiao Yang Apr 11, 2008 09:07 AM

        Isn't Zuzu also noted for the best Cava (Spanish wine) selection in the Bay Area?

        1. s
          SheriffL Apr 14, 2009 03:19 PM

          I also had a relatively disappointing experience. The menu was interested, varied, and well-conceived, but the execution of the dishes was not memorable, lacking good balance of flavor and taste complexity. Service, in particular, was very indifferent. I also found that servers seemed distracted. They were more interested in hanging out with friends or favorite customers than attending to their duties. That said, ZuZu provides a moderate-cost meal with a lively environment.

          1. p
            plainfood Apr 21, 2009 01:11 PM

            I dined at Zuzu two summers ago, at the urging of a SF F & B professional who lived in Napa. We loved the dishes. We arrived early and the service was slow at first, but we were hungry and ordered a lot of dishes (almost all yummy, many at the recommendation of the waiter) and second beers and all of a sudden he was "all over us" with great service. We would return, but I have a love of cocktail/s before dinner and they do not have a full bar.

            1. Carrie 218 Apr 23, 2009 02:52 PM

              I'm curious about the Ubuntu fiasco -- I clicked on your recent posts and don't see anything... Can you direct me?

              1 Reply
              1. re: Carrie 218
                opinionatedchef Apr 23, 2009 04:24 PM

                i've cut and pasted it here:

                03/08 Ubuntu: From The Same Folks That Sold You Bottled Water
                Spoiler Warning: If you are an Ubuntu fan, read no further. I am well aware that any credibility I ever had in the CH community- will be lost forever with this post.Sorry, but I can only write the truth of my own experience. As many different people as there are in the world, there are as many different opinions.....

                Thank heavens for Petit Secs from yesterday's Ferry Bldg. excursion to The Fatted Calf; they're taking the edge off my gnawing hunger while I enter this post.

                There were four of us tonight at Ubuntu.From the beginning, all boded well. CH reviews by admired posters- had been largely positive. We walked in the door at 7PM and were completely surprised to be greeted by the handsome and talented GM who is an old acquaintance from Boston. We were seated at a handsome table with very comfortable chairs in a very handsome high ceilinged space, graced by some unusually good serious sculpture. There was a friendly comfortable inviting vibe about the place.

                By the end of our evening, 9:30, we had shared 12 different items, some 'bites', some 'small plates', some ' large plates',and two desserts.Our friends were pleasantly satiated ; my love and I were ready to go out for dinner.

                Revelations? Not a one. Appealing flavors?- many.Ridiculously skimpy portions?- the norm. Return? Never. N..E..V..E..R

                Marcona Almonds w/ Lavender, sugar, salt. (and I detest lavender)
                Fried sunchokes w/ romesco sauce
                Red pepper and bread quenelles w/ marinated chick peas and whiff of manchego cheese
                Yellow eye bean soup

                table bread and butter
                beet,mache,avocado salad
                radish salad
                carta da musica w/ pea shoots
                robuchon potatoes w/ egg and red wine
                anson grits w/ fava leaves and parm and carrot puree
                chocolate souffle
                vanilla cheesecake in a jar

                I will go into disgruntled detail on only one plate as an example:

                The white anson grits, maybe 1/2 cup, 8 tablespoons, were spread out on a large white plate in kind of a free form long puddle,topped with 3 fava leaves, 2 asparagus spears and 2 broccolini? sprigs, and accompanied by 1-2 tablespoons of mounded tangelo carrot puree. The grits tasted like they had been cooked in water. and unsalted water at that. No lovely rich multidimensional vegetable stock here. They were grossly undersalted and underparmesaned. As a matter of record, I would testify that there was no parmesan present. I added liberal salt and a requested side of parm. And did I mention the cost of this 'Large Plate' of 1/2 cup of grits? $21.00.

                Service was o.k. Throughout the evening, the waitress consistently did not notice things that needed replenishing. One item we ordered never appeared. Her recs were crummy- the potatoes reblochon that she said we 'couldn't not get' were completely undistinguished, forgettable, and an insult to Chef Robuchon. She pushed the pizzas, but other CH posts saved me from following her lead.

                BTW, The chef was present and on the line this evening. I'm sure he is very pleased with all the press and positive feedback he's been receiving.
                And the owners? Well, they're certainly not the first , nor will they be the last, to build
                an empire on air........ or bottled water. But it will not be me helping them purchase that island in the Seychelles........

                My advice for those of you who want to be wowed by some great vegetarian food?- find a talented chef and eat her/his vegetarian offerings. (Just in the past week, both Cortez in SF and Redd in Yountville- have had many exquisite vegetarian offerings on their menus- with which one could easily put together a super many-dish dinner.)

                Permalink | Report | Reply
                opinionatedchef Mar 31, 2008 03:36AM

              2. opinionatedchef Apr 23, 2009 04:30 PM

                Of course we returned here on this year's annual cal. visit. Fortunately, the same talented chef and waiter were on site; remembered us, visited and made us feel right at home. We weren't as excited by this particular menu and found a little too much repetition with the (delicious) Romesco sauce,but quality was still on target and, compared to the Elements menu, we still are more drawn to Zuzu.

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