Napa’s Tapas

Zuzu delivers Spanish flair in trendy setting

By Paula Harris

It’s a glacial Saturday night, but the high-energy music and hubbub of animated conversation when you walk into Zuzu thaws the soul like an unexpected blast of sunshine from a sultry clime. This new tapas restaurant and wine bar in Napa has only been open a few weeks, but it’s obvious that locals are giving Zuzu a warm reception. This evening the restaurant is swarming with young and beautiful people in stylish shoes and scarves–the sort of trendy, well-heeled crowd you would never encounter in, say, downtown Santa Rosa. They sip on glasses of Argentinean pinot gris or Chilean Cab while primping and people watching.

Since the place is bustling, we go to the bar to wait for a table and check out the scene.

The gorgeous decor is sort of a cross between artsy peasant elegance and trendy religious chic. The floor is paved in decorative Spanish tile and the ceiling adorned with large squares of aged tin that looks like coppery terra cotta. Elongated glass lamps hang from long chains, and the walls feature artwork in subdued tones of cream, brown, and green.

The rustic bar, where a lot of the action happens, is basically a wooden counter in front of some shelves against the back wall, lined with wine bottles and tea lights glowing in amber glass. On the bar’s top shelf stand four statues of praying angels bestowing their saintly blessings on the happy wine drinkers below.

Those drinkers have quite a selection to choose from. Zuzu offers some 15 wines by the glass from Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and the United States in prices ranging from $5 to $8. In addition to domestic beers, there are also beers from Mexico and Brazil, plus an extensive list of wines by the bottle, and sherries, Madeiras, and ports by the glass.

Zuzu is everywhere informal and lively. You can take your tapas at the bar, in the downstairs dining room, or upstairs in the loft. A black-clad wait staff shimmies between the tables keeping tapa orders filled. Although the place is very busy, the service is attentive and helpful.

It’s centuries old, this Spanish tradition of strolling from bar to bar sampling a huge variety of tapas–bite-sized portions of various cold and hot appetizers–with a glass of wine or beer. Whether the convivial national pastime is a profound way of engaging the community or simply a trick for spacing your drinks so you don’t get smashed is debatable. Either way, it’s good fun.

Tapas can range from a simple handful of olives or almonds to grand and sophisticated creations. Zuzu offers an enticing selection of traditional Spanish tapas fare and ventures beyond it with items like Brazilian-style steamed mussels ($6), Moroccan barbecue lamb chops ($11), and Argentine marinated skirt steak with chimichurri ($6). The tapa portions are, of course, quite small, but they are surprisingly hearty and filling. And extremely flavorful. In fact, we couldn’t stop ordering them.

A portion of sautéed mushrooms in garlic and sherry ($4) is a tasty treat, especially when you mop up the garlicky sherry sauce with a piece of crusty bread. The same goes for the sizzling prawns ($7), Zuzu’s take on gambas al ajillo–three plump, juicy prawns encased in their crunchy skins spluttering becomingly in garlic-scented olive oil.

The classic Spanish tortilla ($4), a potato and green onion omelet, is individually cooked and brought to the table in a tiny, long-handled black skillet. Usually this layered egg cake is thick and juicy. Zuzu’s tasted OK, but it was a little dry.

The cazuela de pollo ($4) is a hearty chicken and fennel soup that’s so thick it’s almost a stew. It boasts tomatoes, carrots, chicken, fennel celery, strips of fresh basil, and potatoes, all meltingly tender in a zesty rich and exotic broth.

A baked goat cheese tapa ($5) has mild goat cheese melting atop a thick and richly smoky tomato sauce. The flavors seems to echo each other. Simple tapas like the grilled onions with romesco sauce ($3) are also satisfying and go perfectly with the Cota de Imaz Rioja Reserva ($28), a velvety red wine.

Also, don’t miss the paella of the day ($8). Tonight’s version is a lusty blend of clams, prawns, mussels, chorizo, short ribs, and saffron rice served in a miniature paella pan.

If you crave something sweet, try the semolina cake with currant syrup and Meyer lemon cream ($5), a yummy muffinlike pudding flavored with raisins and cream. The apple empanada with lime caramel sauce ($5) is also good but would be better warmed.

This is a fun experience. Check it out and you’ll discover that the tapa sampling ritual and camaraderie of Spain translates very well at Zuzu.

Zuzu Address: 829 Main Street, Napa. 707.224.8555. Hours: Open 4 to 10:30pm Sunday-Thursday, and 4pm to midnight on Friday and Saturday. Plans to open soon for lunch. Food: Spanish tapas Service: Friendly, attentive, and professional Ambiance: Lively rustic chic Price: Moderate Wine list: Great selection from Latin American, Spain, and the United States, by the glass or bottle Overall: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

From the February 14-20, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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