Drive west from downtown Santa Rosa and strip malls soon give way to fields. Before long, you’ll encounter Zazu, a market-driven restaurant on the outskirts of town that captures Sonoma County’s essence, with many ingredients plucked right from the backyard garden. The owners’ commitment to seasonal cooking is hardly limited to lettuces, vegetables and herbs. Chefs Zoi Antonitsas & Duskie Estes also use homemade salumi and sustainable animals. The flavor of the meal didn’t quite match the ambition of their vision, but Zazu is still a worthy dinner destination after a day of winery or brewery stops.
“Salumist” John Stewart operates out of Bovolo, a sister restaurant on Healdsburg’s main square, and his efforts reverberate to Zazu. Stewart makes bacon and salumi using heirloom black pigs that are antibiotic and hormone free. Their provenance was in evidence on our three-salumi “butcher’s plate” ($22). We bypassed Tartufo Nero (black truffle), but still scored glistening rows of well-marbled salumi flavored with spicy Moroccan-influenced Harissa, Genoa (white wine + black pepper) and Felino (red wine + black pepper). The salumi is always different, depending Stewart’s whim. He’s also been known to spike his salumi with Ginger and Fennel Pollen.
No matter what ingredients Stewart uses, the pairing is always pickled grapes, cut in half and tossed on top of the meat. The tangy grapes are pickled with ingredients like apple cider vinegar, brown sugar and clove and cut the pork’s richness.
Squash Blossom Friti ($13.50) was the best version all weekend, featuring delicately fried blossoms filled with Sarah J. Palmer’s fresh ricotta and plated with bursting cherry tomatoes, shavings of sharp Pecorino and a light sprinkling of lemon olive oil.
Backyard Red Oak Lettuce ($13) salad featured crisp lolla rossa leaves, juicy sliced peaches, pistachios and thin shavings of Bohemian Creamery Capriago, a creamy goat’s milk cheese along the lines of Asiago.
Everybody else wanted to order the sand dabs, but they still wanted to try the flat iron steak, so I was basically bullied into order the Grilled Flat Iron Steak ($27) with Little Point Reyes blue cheese ravioli and ruby chard. The steak was juicy and had a decent sear, but wasn’t worth ordering instead of the sand dabs. The ratio was also off on the ravioli, with way too much dough and not enough of that spicy molten blue cheese. The whole cloves of roasted garlic obviously had plenty of flavor, but got to be too intense.
Cornmeal Crusted Farallon Island Sand Dab ($26) posed a logistic challenge, since the single fillet still contained plenty of bones. At least the fish was flaky and paired well with the golden cornmeal crust. The base of the bowl contained chowder chock-full of supple clams and sweet corn chowder flavored with smoky black pig guanciale (cured pork cheek) and backyard tarragon.
Petit Poussin Al Mattone ($26) was the biggest letdown. The small chicken was supposedly cooked under a brick, and while the meat was juicy, didn’t have the desired crispy skin. The bird was also underseasoned. Thankfully it was slathered with backyard basil pesto and served with a rich ratatouille loaded with tender slabs of eggplant and red pepper.
Despite what the menu said, it really wasn’t worth it to “Save Room!” Hazelnut + Backyard Squash Cake ($9) had very little hazelnut flavor and only contained tiny flecks of squash. This was basically a dry pound cake cascading with lemon icing. Dry Creek Olive Oil Gelato, drizzled with said gelato, tasted luxurious, but wasn’t enough to salvage the dessert.
Zazu started strong and plateaued by the time our entrees arrived at our table. We all had high expectations for the meal given the verbiage on the menu. Several dishes delivered, particularly the salumi and squash blossoms, but there are bound to be better meals in Sonoma County.