It’s hard not to admire restaurants that take risks – especially if those risks challenge diners to take a chance on something out of the ordinary. ZINC’s fall menu is one such gamble – it offers an interesting twist on the recent trend of small plates.
Nearly three dozen people attended ZINC’s media launch dinner, held on November 1, 2010 (oh yes, I am that behind). Chef David Omar introduced the driving concept behind his new menu, generously illustrated by a sample of eighteen dishes, plated and served as they would be on any other night, to any other diner.
Chef Omar explained that he wanted to provide guests with the option of ordering food as one would order wine – either by the glass or by the bottle. So, frustrated with the idea of confronting a customer with multiple menus, he designed the Fall 2010 menu to allow for both “by the bite” and “by the plate” selection.
Mack and I were seated with Chris, Sarah, Marianne and Charles – I’m sure jokes about dining with food bloggers abound, but for such an experience, there are no better dining companions (especially when they are much more on top of things than I am, having written about it weeks ago).
It was an intense meal to be sure, and to tell you that I remember everything, even with my notes, would be a lie. The flip side, however, is that the elements that stood out on that brisk fall day still do, while other, less memorable courses have fallen away.
In the order that they were served:
Cucumber and Tomato Salad ($4/bite, $10/plate) – I loved the textural variants, from the cucumber to the tomato to the quinoa. It did alarm me a little when Chef Omar mentioned that quinoa was very “in” at the moment – as much as I love fads sometimes, I was hoping there was more to his inclusion of the grain. Still, it was a lovely dish that longs for an Indian summer.
Caesar Salad ($4/bite, $10/plate) – My favourite of the trio, if only because of the bacon bits: prosciutto that had been deep fried, then dried in the oven. More please.
Beet Salad ($4/bite, $10/plate) – Not being the biggest fan of beets, I would never order this, but bravo to Chef Omar to demonstrate the versatility of beets – as a sorbet, and as a chip.
Salmon Three Ways ($5/bite, $12/plate) – It was great to have Chef Omar introduce each course, particularly when they were preceded by a story or a rationale. With this dish, we got both: continuing to order his salmon from Fin’s, this dish was his way of opposing the movement towards GMO salmon; while the maple cured candy (which tasted like fish jerky, emphasis on the fish), was something Chef Omar snacked on during his honeymoon. Unfortunately, I didn’t really care for the plate, narratives or not.
Lobster Bisque ($4/shot, $10/bowl) – Playfully served in a small cup, I thought the bisque was well-prepared.
Pan Seared Scallop ($6/bite, $18/plate) – ZINC’s staunch regulars demanded this dish carry over from the summer menu, and so, it remains. It wasn’t difficult to see why; the scallop was cooked well, and the sweet potato and maple ginger puree was perfection. Purees are a resolute strength of the kitchen.
Beef ($9/bite, $38/plate) – I still can’t wrap my head around who would only want a smidgen of beef. Around the table, the slices of Spring Creek Ranch striploin (individually fired) were all well-done and dry. No amount of goat cheese butter or shiraz jus could have saved it.
Vegetables ($7/bite, $24/plate) – Orzo really isn’t ideal for risotto; it doesn’t soak up flavour as well as rice or barley. Although it was all right to eat (I am a fan of the crunchy microgreens and sundried tomatoes), it was a poor vegetarian option.
Chicken ($7/bite, $29/plate) – The chicken supreme saltimbocca was delicious – moist and particularly flavourful in its swath of red pepper butter, it definitely did not suffer the same fate at its Angus brother. The roll of naked papperdelle noodles seemed like an unnecessary afterthought, and as much as I enjoy asparagus, given Chef Omar’s mentions of seasonality, it seemed inconsistent.
Duck ($8/bite, $32/plate) – Memories of Wild Tangerine’s jasmine tea, wok-smoked duck danced on my tongue when Chef Omar described that his duck breast had been smoked in green tea. Unfortunately, the smoked flavour didn’t really come through. The accompaniments, however, helped make this one of the most interesting dishes – a delicate, vanilla-scented cherry tomato, and a pumpkin and potato puree that would have been fit for dessert. It’s worth noting that while Chef Omar does his best to source locally (and does feature some local proteins on his menu), he told us later that Greens, Eggs and Ham isn’t able to supply him with the consistent volumes that he needs, so only he is only able to serve their duck on occasion).
Braised Lentils ($4/bite, $12 plate) – With pork belly atop the lentils, I expected fireworks. But with a slice of belly with too much fat but not enough flavour, the lentils, turned in a red curry cream, ended up being the most exciting taste to be had.
Lamb ($9/bite, $38/plate) – One of Mack’s favourites, and unlike the steak, was perfectly cooked. Sadly for me, as our tablemates were noting down their love for the dish, I dropped my piece on the floor. Sigh.
Pork Tenderloin Medallion ($6/bite, $16/plate) – The pork was overcooked and chewy, again a victim of precise timing needed with such small portions. The Savoy cabbage was nice, but Chef Omar emphasized that he would use whatever cabbage was fresh.
Cannelloni ($6/bite, $14/plate) – Greens, Eggs and Ham duck confit made an appearance in this dish, hurrah! Mack and I differed on opinions here though – he absolutely loved it (the melted manchego cheese, from Paddy’s, and the mushrooms and leeks didn’t hurt either). The texture of the confit reminded me a little too much of pate, though I agreed that the flavour was amazing.
Bison ($9/bite, $40/plate) – The pan-seared tenderloin sung to me in this trio, the Saskatoon berry jus providing a pleasantly sweet finish.
Bison Carpaccio ($6/bite, $40/plate) – Some of the plates (bisque, scallop), seemed to be a more natural fit for the “by the bite” concept. The bison Carpaccio was another, as some might be uncertain about committing to an entire dish of unknown. The plate was elegant, but the paper-thin slices of meat were overpowered by the pink peppercorn. I would order it again; it was promising.
Spaghetti ($8/bite, $26/plate) – The alpaca meatball I had a few days later from ZINC’s station at the Chili Cookoff wasn’t dry, so I’d say that much like some of the other proteins, that the kitchen just had to work on the timing.
Salmon ($8/bite, $36/plate) – Why eat salmon when you can have an amazing roasted barley pilaf with kohlrabi and carrot instead? This accompaniment knocked my socks off, and made me wonder why it wasn’t the vegetarian option.
Dessert, to my mind, made the easiest transition to the tasting concept – how often have you wanted to order one of everything off of the dessert menu? In a city with a distinct lack of dessert bars, I hope someone steps up soon.
While Chef Omar couldn’t provide “by the bite” servings of his desserts, he did treat us to his banana bread pudding. Served warm, it was a lovely way to end the night.
Again, I’d like to commend Chef Omar for introducing this concept to Edmonton diners. Though some dishes worked better than others, I can imagine the menu is a work in progress. I would also guess that with time, the kitchen could perfect the preparation of the proteins.
Thanks to Chef Omar and the rest of the staff at ZINC for a memorable experience!
ZINC (inside the Art Gallery of Alberta)
2 Sir Winston Churchill Square
Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday 11am-2:30pm; Dinner: Tuesday-Wednesday 5-9pm, Thursday-Saturday 5-10pm; Brunch: Sunday 11am-2pm; closed Mondays