Cozy Up to Zola in Palo Alto

Chocolate mousse made extra special with coffee gelee at Zola in Palo Alto.

Chocolate mousse made extra special with coffee gelee at Zola in Palo Alto.

 

If French writer Emile Zola was all about literary realism, then Palo Alto’s new Zola restaurant pays fitting tribute with its seasonal French cooking that keeps it real and all together soulful.

Chef-Proprietor Guillaume Bienaime opened his intimate downtown restaurant in late-September. The former fine-dining chef at Marche in Menlo Park has consulted on restaurants over the past couple of years. But Zola is his own venture and you can tell he’s poured his heart into it.

Recently, I met up with a friend for dinner there, with us paying the tab at the end of the meal. It’s a cozy space done up in denim-colored walls beside exposed brick, bare wood tables and classic cafe chairs.

The dining room is compact, but it is inviting.

The dining room is compact, but it is inviting.

It’s the kind of place where you can come in jeans, and settle in with a glass of French Rhone wine and a plate of short ribs done Bourguignon-style, and emerge feeling restored.

We started with a bacon-porcini tart ($14), which was a special appetizer that evening. Oh, the French so know how to do pastry. The crust was blissfully buttery and flaky, and crowned with earthy mushrooms and salty bits of bacon.

Porcini and bacon should always go together.

Porcini and bacon should always go together.

A soup to remember.

A soup to remember.

Next up, one of my favorite dishes. Each night, Zola offers a “Soupe de Moment” ($7), which is always vegetarian. That evening, it was celery root. It doesn’t look like much in the bowl, but it is a show-stopper on the palate with its drizzle of brown butter-coffee glaze. The soup is at once sweet and creamy. Then, at the very end, you get that kiss of deep nuttiness from the butter and bitter earthiness from the coffee. Its singular flavor will haunt you long after you enjoy the last spoonful.

My friend enjoyed the Roasted Pork Loin & Belly ($25). The belly was caramelized and unctuous. Apples, turnips, Brussels sprouts and a hint of both maple and sage made this a true taste of fall.

My special of gulf prawns ($32) had the heavenly texture of lobster. Four were arranged in a pool of a rich, buttery, creamy wine sauce. The tiniest croutons added a nice contrast of crunch.

Pork loin meets belly.

Pork loin meets belly.

Gulf prawns in a most buttery sauce.

Gulf prawns in a most buttery sauce.

Hearty veggies in a mild curry.

Hearty veggies in a mild curry.

A side dish of brassicas — cauliflower florets and kale — was imbued with gentle curry and golden raisins for a blend of fruity-sweet and warm earthiness.

For dessert, we shared the chocolate mousse ($8). It came jazzed up with cubes of coffee gel, a dollop of whipped cream, and a sprinkle of sea salt — all of which made the standard all the more interesting.

Like a good book, Zola is the kind of place worth revisiting again and again.

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More Downtown Palo Alto Restaurants: Lure & Till

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And: Lyfe Kitchen

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And: Amber Dhara

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