For as long as I can remember, Zuni Grill has been there in the strip mall next to the police station on Greenbank Road near West Hunt Club. It’s an odd location for a fine-dining establishment, for sure, but its longevity had to mean something, I figured. Still, I’d never set foot in the place until last night, and let me tell you, it won’t be my last visit. This unassuming storefront conceals a deeply funky interior populated with friendly staff offering delicious food at very reasonable prices. I shouldn’t even be writing about it; it’s the kind of place that seems to survive on word of mouth and if it gets too famous, I might not be able to get in there on a Thursday night anymore. On the other hand, I think the Anwar family deserves all the kudos they can get for running such a nifty place so far from the city’s centre.
Dinner was for four last night – my parents, my sister and I. After much squinting at the chalkboard on my mom’s part, it turned out that our waiter was more than happy to describe the daily specials to us anyway, and they all sounded amazing. As a matter of fact, I was the only one who ordered straight off the menu. Mom had to try the Indian-spiced onion fritters (bhaji, only bigger, basically) and enjoyed them immensely. Dad went with the soup, as he usually does, which last night was pumpkin bisque – creamy and subtly spiced, not too sweet, it was everything a fall soup should be. My sister and I ordered appetizers from the regular menu – she had stuffed mushroom caps in garlic butter, I had a deconstructed Greek salad that was fresh and tasty.
The other three ordered their mains from the specials list – Dad tried the Bengal beef stew over rice, while Mom and J both ordered the phyllo-wrapped salmon stuffed with shrimp and cheeses, drizzled with red pepper coulis. I wasn’t in a salmon mood and didn’t try any, but both their portions disappeared so I assumed they were delicious. J said the fish was yummy and she didn't even really need the side dishes because she had all 4 food groups in her phyllo package: carbs, protein, spinach for veggies and cheese for dairy. Dad also enjoyed his stew, which he called an Indian version of the French-Canadian casserole pauvre homme – it was ground beef with peas and spices, and looked a bit like a beef samosa’s filling. I went with my gut and ordered the coconut curried black tiger shrimp and veggie stew over rice, from their regular menu, and boy, am I glad it’s a menu item, because I’ll be eating it again. It was red curry and just one the edge of “spicy” and “too spicy” but still very enjoyable, with creamy sauce and still-crunchy vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, sugar snaps, carrots) nestled among small but tasty shrimp atop perfectly cooked basmati. I’m getting hungry again just thinking about it, honestly.
Three of us shared a half-litre of Wyndham Estates Bin 555 Shiraz (served a little too warm, as is common for reds in restaurants). The wine list is short and not terribly exotic, but they had a couple of good choices available by the half-litre, glass or bottle, which I appreciated. Next time with the curry I’m having the Gewurztraminer I saw on the whites list.
Dessert was the only slight letdown, mostly due to careless ordering on my part, I think. Mom and I split the pistachio and crunchy chocolate cheesecake, which was a plain cheesecake studded with chunks of pistachio on top of a chocolate cookie crust. It wasn’t sweet enough and almost too rich, and I was glad the piece was tiny. Dad scored the last orange and Grand Marnier-scented crème brulée, which he said was “good, but not the best ever”. I tried it, and to my dismay there was also some star anise in there – not a fan. The texture was good though, and they torch the top at your table, which is nifty. J got the best dessert – grilled fresh pineapple drizzled with butterscotch sauce. I’d order that next time for sure. The portion was huge and could easily be shared.
Excellent decaf put the finishing “aaaahhhh” on a delicious meal, and the service, provided by a friendly young man who reminded us of Mohinder Suresh on Heroes, was beyond reproach. The meal was well-paced, unhurried but not unduly long. A word about the décor: it’s sort of dreamlike and mystical, dimly lit, with moons and stars painted in gold on the deeply coloured walls, wrought-iron partitions studded with bubbly coloured glass bits, and a homey bar up front. The whole thing puts one in mind of a hippie coffee shop, but in the best possible way. The food puts me in mind of Savana Café’s, while the décor evokes the late, lamented Eclectic Noodle in Sandy Hill or the even later and also lamented Ironwood Café on Somerset.
I have found my new favourite neighbourhood restaurant, and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s what we always wanted – a great place to eat that we can walk to. Granted, it’s a 30-minute walk, one way, but that’s long enough to work up an appetite on the way there and to walk off a great meal on the way back home.