Ambiance, food, wine, service: Zibibbo still has all the right elements
It's "This Old House" meets "Veranda" meets Bon Appetit at Zibibbo. Inside the goldenrod-colored Victorian on Kipling Street, architect Cass Calder Smith united indoor and outdoor elements and created an astonishing light-flooded restaurant that is as in vogue today as it was when Zibibbo opened in 1997.
A stylish bar area abuts an atrium with its live olive tree. The atrium segues into several dining rooms with vaulted, skylighted ceilings, wooden booths, cushioned iron chairs, and a huge open kitchen. The restaurant doesn't feel large, but it's festive enough for that special-occasion dinner and intimate enough for a romantic tete-a-tete.
It's a good feeling walking into Zibibbo, and that anticipation is rewarded with excellent Mediterranean fare, a superb wine list and service that is friendly, knowledgeable and punctual.
Zibibbo is sister to the long-successful Restaurant Lulu in San Francisco. With the company for five years, Jeremiah Han assumed the general manager duties at Zibibbo last October without missing a beat. The menu is geared towards family-style fare: plates that can be shared, or hoarded, depending on how much you might like a particular dish. Steve Piro ably manages the kitchen.
For starters, the house-made charcuterie plate ($10) at a recent meal had appetite-whetting slices of spicy coppa, dry-cured sopressata and mild, melt-in-the-mouth Milano sausage served with olives, grainy mustard and a stack of toasted crostini.
"Israeli Cigars" ($8) have been on the menu for years. Obviously the dish is popular but for reasons that escape me. The two "cigars" were crispy brik pastry (similar to phyllo but not as flaky) filled with potato, caramelized onion and chives. There was a ramekin of sour cream for dipping. It was tasty enough but a tad on the boring side, given other possibilities.
The soup du jour one evening was wild mushroom ($7). Besides having four kinds of mushrooms, the soup contained pea sprouts. Squiggles of pea puree layered over the top imbued more flavors in the soup without detracting from the terrestrial mosaic of mushrooms.
Another perennial favorite at Zibibbo is iron skillet-roasted mussels ($13). It's a grand presentation. The fiery hot skillet was brought to the table and placed on an eye-level wire stand. The sizzle and aromas from the still-roasting mussels sent waves of gustatory pleasure across the table.
I eschewed the drawn lemon-herb butter that accompanied it, as the mussels didn't need a competing flavor or added richness. My only qualm was that some of the bivalves were not very meaty; a couple barely contained enough meat to fork out.
Oven-roasted Moroccan spiced prawns ($13) were dazzling in their own right. Also served on an iron skillet, the prawns were plump, bronzed and sinfully delicious. It's de rigueur to sop up the lemon-scallion sauce with a chunk of baguette.
The menu offered several pizza varieties. The wild mushroom pizza ($16) with sprigs of fresh thyme and drizzled with black truffle oil was as earthy a pizza as I've tasted. There were at least four, perhaps five varieties of mushrooms (and no crimini or button). The crust was soft, pliant, yeasty and enticing. I could barely finish half.
Main courses were equally successful. From the oak-fired rotisserie, I adored the fennel-scented pork loin ($20). Two large slices had been cut from one large rib — the rib was included. A mini mountain of fluffy olive-oil mashed potatoes accompanied. It's a smashing dish.
Also from the rotisserie, the rosemary-scented chicken ($19) was juicy and flavor-packed. The half chicken had been cut into quarters, presumably to make navigating with a knife and fork easier. The result, though, was disjointed, splintery pieces. It was difficult to fork a piece without getting a tiny bone or two in the mouth. The chicken was served on a bed of lettuce spiked with chunks of golden potatoes.
The mouthwatering grilled salmon ($24) was served with asparagus and pink grapefruit slices with a tarragon beurre blanc sauce. The fish was orange-pink, fleshy and flavorful, while the grapefruit, an unlikely pairing, added a citrusy spark. The buttery tarragon sauce helped unite the improbable but enticing flavors.
Pepper-crusted skirt steak ($26) with roasted fingerling potatoes, cipollini onions, baby turnips and salsa agresto was everything I desired in a skirt steak. The beef was fork-tender, the potatoes golden, the onions and turnips sweet.
The agresto topping was coarser than pesto, with walnuts, almonds, parsley, basil, garlic, kosher salt and olive oil. This sauce would be great on pasta or simply smeared on a baguette.
Desserts did not disappoint. I get pangs remembering the lush banana brioche bread pudding ($7.50) with Kahlua creme anglaise and almond ice cream. The light-as-a-feather vanilla bean panna cotta ($7.50) with fresh berries had fantastic fresh dairy flavor.
Beignets ($7.50) were the size of puffed-up tennis balls, accompanied by a Meyer lemon-mint sauce, all drizzled with caramel. Profiteroles ($7.50) were stuffed with silky strawberry ice cream, coated with chocolate sauce and sprinkled with toasted almonds.
The wine list is extensive and expensive, yet there are many worthwhile wines priced from $30 to $60 and a "Finders Keepers" promotion that is noteworthy. Zibibbo has received the Wine Spectator's prestigious Best of Award of Excellence. That means big-time French, Italian and California labels with matching big-time prices.
The Finders Keepers program offers 50 percent off a broad, rotating selection of premium wines. It is a grand way to try some of the best wines in the world at sane prices. One evening, we enjoyed a superb 2005 Volnay Clos d' Audignac ($188) discounted to $94.
Zibibbo has retained its specialness by focusing on what its customers want: delicious food, good service, outstanding wine list and trendy bar scene, all packaged in one goldenrod Victorian.
430 Kipling St.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fri. 11:30 a.m-10 p.m. Sat. noon-10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: atrium
Party facilities: yes
Noise level: noisy
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent