"Reliable." In a hyperbolic age when anything short of hosanas and accolades is the equivalent of damnation, reliable has become a dirty word. It's not. Reliable, along with other disfavored words like "steady," "dependable," and "workmanlike," are strong, noble words, describing people who work hard, deliver what they say they will deliver, and do it consistently day after day. Reliable is one of the best words I can think of to describe a restaurant, or the chef who's running the kitchen. And it's exactly the word I would use to describe Zeppa Bistro on Gregory Street and its executive chef and co-owner, Seth Lindahl.
Open for a little more than half a year, Zeppa Bistro has become a reliable choice in the South Wedge. A restaurant that's as good for a Wednesday night bowl of pasta as it is for a special occasion or a weekend splurge, it has already attracted a faithful following of regulars. And as word of chef Lindahl's $30 prix fixe menu offered on Thursday evenings gets out, the ranks of regulars are sure to grow, every portion of creamy pork rillettes or plate of pan-seared scallops with pineapple salsa winning over new converts.
Offering what Lindahl describes as California cuisine with French and Italian influences, Zeppa's menu reads like a catalog of American fine-dining classics from the past 20 years. There's steak frites and caprese salad, iceberg wedges and seafood fra diavolo, and that reliable (there's that word again) standby the roasted beet salad with spicy nuts and goat cheese. There are few surprises on Zeppa's menu, but there's nothing wrong with that because everything Lindahl sends out the kitchen door is technically perfect — cooking that is a credit to his culinary-school training. Order two of the same entrée and both of them will come out looking identical, every element carefully cooked, plated, and presented just-so. It's an admirable accomplishment, and one that not many restaurants can manage consistently.
What sets Zeppa apart from most other restaurants offering contemporary American cuisine is that Lindahl doesn't take shortcuts, ever. He makes every item on the menu (including the feather-light buttery dinner rolls that start your meal) from scratch, using fresh, local and sustainably farmed ingredients from suppliers like John Bolton, Full Moon Farms, the Lively Run Goat Dairy, and the Good Food Collective. I have no idea what that does to Lindahl's food costs, but it surely means that he treats every leaf of lettuce and every patty-pan squash, every tiny baby carrot and round of goat cheese like it's made out of pure gold (or at least silver), lavishing such attention on them that such humble items as the vegetable side that comes with your entrée become show-stoppingly good.
Start with a plate of polenta fries atop a ragout of sauteed mushrooms finished with taleggio and anointed with truffle oil ($8). You've seen this dish before, but Lindahl's touch with the mushrooms coaxes every bit of flavor out of the tiny, brown criminis, and renders the shiitakes meaty while enhancing their natural bacony aroma. The dish almost doesn't need the drizzle of truffle oil to perk up the 'shrooms, but you will be glad that it is there. The polenta, as well done as it is, seems almost like a crispy afterthought, an edible alternative to the knife for pushing mushrooms onto your fork.
The pork rillettes, part of a prix fixe menu that I enjoyed on a previous visit, also came with a starchy scoop, beautifully toasted rounds of crostini brushed with olive oil and herbs and served alongside a ramekin of finely ground and seasoned pork topped with a cute half-moon of pure lard. The pork was remarkably mild and instantly addictive, particularly when paired with slices of pickled onions and a bit of house-made mustard — salty, meaty, spicy and crunchy all in one bite.
You would expect that the former chef at Max Chophouse would have a dab hand at meat, and you won't be disappointed here. While you can find strip steaks and rib-eyes on the menu, as well as a very promising-sounding burger, it's clear that Lindahl loves his skirt steak ($19). Served gloriously rare atop a pile of crispy skin-on frites and finished with drizzles of chimichurri and a tamarind-heavy housemade steak sauce that's reminiscent of A-1 on steroids, the sliced steak is nearly fork tender, juices soaking the fries below and creating a savory pool of gravy on the plate. The portion that looks modest at first glance is anything but.
If shock and awe is more your speed, then the sheer size of the citrus-herb-crusted Atlantic cod ($17) will surely give you bragging rights with your dining companions. In essence, this is not much more than an updated version of cod broiled with bread crumbs and lemon, but the secret is in how you broil it and what's in those crumbs. Lemon and orange zest, a bit of thyme, maybe some oregano or basil, and some garlic are layered atop a snowy white thick fillet of cod cooked until the flesh comes apart in leaves like a thick book. As good as the fish was, the seasonal vegetable medley full of roasted corn, squash, sugar-snap peas, and cauliflower (garnished with a single, gorgeously caramelized baby carrot) and finished with truffle butter stopped conversation at my table dead, prompting my companion to close her eyes and savor each bite.
Normally I don't save room for dessert, but when our server told me that there were fresh doughnuts on the menu, I changed my policy. Lindahl offers two different kinds of doughnuts — a chocolate fry-cake that he tops with homemade vanilla ice-cream and a yeast doughnut enriched with cinnamon, glazed, and served atop fresh peach compote. Of the two, the cinnamon doughnut was my favorite. It was served hot from the fryer, still cooking the peaches on which it was resting. But the midnight-black chocolate option, raked through a nearly yellow puddle of ice cream, was no slouch either, a perfectly reliable ending to an entirely wonderful meal.