« Crimson, 405 Colorado | Main | El Regio »

April 18, 2005

Zin Bistro, 1601 W. 38th St.

I appreciate honest servers, to an extent, but when someone tells me to avoid a dish I like to know why. Dietary preferences sometimes intervene - "I haven't tried that because I don't eat meat" is a common refrain with the damn hippies around here. Other times they simply don't care and steer you to the popular dishes, refusing to render any personal judgment whatsoever on the food and instead subjugating your decision making to the popular will. This, I think, explains the sales figures for Bloomin' Onions, and perhaps the ascendancy of George W. Bush.

Anyway, when the server at Zin - the establishment that made over Ella's old space with halogen lights and big plasma screen - told us to avoid the gumbo at all costs, I had to know why. "I don't consider it real gumbo without okra in it" was her first reason, followed by a disquisition on her Cajun cred (a boyfriend from Louisiana) and further proscriptions against gumbos being either dark or possessed of anything more piquant than a dash of filé. Paul Prudhomme, had he been able to squeeze through the entry way, would have fallen off his little scooter.

She was actually right about the gumbo, for all the wrong reasons. Chicken and andouille gumbo should be – or at least can be – dark, spicy and preternaturally rich and smoky. The best ones come from the blackest of roux, held so close to burning that another second of heat renders them inedible. Lighter roux is fine for seafood and will hold its own with meats in a pinch, but if you're going to hit me with smoked meat and sausage, give me a roux that stands up to it. I don't want point-counterpoint, I want a blow to the head.

Zin's gumbo, at least on this particular evening, should never have left the kitchen. The roux had separated and, while someone made an game attempt to cover that fact (perhaps with beef broth), water and oil did not mix properly somewhere along the line. The result was a thin, dark mess, nearly tasteless save for empty spiciness. This diluted gruel was perhaps the worst gumbo I've had outside a cafeteria, and a terrible start to the meal. Score one for the server.

The rest of the meal disappointed along different lines. Zin charges handsomely for the privilege of dining in the evening, with most entreés hovering in the $22-30 range and a few over $30. I'm not averse to shelling out this kind of dough for a meal in Austin, but there are only a few restaurants that truly merit such prices; they either have cachet (Jeffrey's), expensive raw materials and labor (our better sushi bars and steakhouses) or unique and superior food (Vespaio).

Zin has none of these. The menu promises typical eclectic wine country cuisine paired with a extensive wine list. There are plenty of mashers and demis here, the requisite game dishes and lots of fish, but nothing earth-shattering. One would look, then, to either exceptional service or preparation, but Zin hasn't impressed me with either of those (though the host and bar crew are usually on their game).

We ordered duck, salmon and a small plate of crab cakes – the latter, our server emphasized more than once, were "pure crab meat, nothing else," which led me to wonder what on earth was wrong with a little bit of binder now and then; is there anything more achingly deserving of mayo than lump crab meat? (Don't answer that.) The crab cakes were fine – delicate and well-prepared, competent. Competency, indeed, was the theme for the rest of the meal.

The duck breast came medium rare as ordered, though not without a quizzical look from the server, who said most of her patrons were shocked that the chef would recommend cooking a duck breast medium – that was too rare for fowl. (Who are these people?) The bird sat next to bland garlic mashers topped with some truly pathetic-looking asparagus (unless there is a baby asparagus craze that I haven't heard about) that had all the crunch cooked out of it. Two small puddles of balsamic demi sandwiched the veggies, too large for a presentation garnish and too small to provide much sopping enjoyment. Not terrible, certainly – indeed, competent. I'd probably enjoy a similar dish at another restaurant for $15, or $18 - but $25? Sorry, I'm not that eager to help pay off your remodel.

The salmon was a little better, though we couldn't tell if the corn pudding came out cold intentionally or not. It was, if nothing else, a generous piece of fish, fresh and cooked properly. Whether or not it justified its nearly $30 price tag is another matter. With all the other choices in town, I believe you should choose your expensive dinners carefully, unless you prefer to throw a lot of money around for the hell of it. Zin's patio may be enough of a romantic attraction to keep couples coming in for pricey dinners, but there is little else to recommend this restaurant. Try it for lunch instead if you must.

Outdoor dining has an occasional downside as well, beyond the bugs and the heat. We considered dessert, but as I watched the woman across from us disgorge a chihuahua from her handbag, and then observed the dog licking the remainder of her entreé off the plate, I lost my appetite. I wondered why the staff would let someone bring an animal in and allow them on the table (this isn't the Crown and Anchor, after all); then a number of servers came and sat with her, and it was clear she was a friend or fellow employee. I'm not sure if that makes the whole scene better or worse.

Posted by brentbuford at April 18, 2005 09:26 PM