Our first visit to Zea followed the day after it was savaged by an erstwhile Albuquerque Journal restaurant critic, but any trepidation we might have had quickly dissipated when we were greeted enthusiastically at the hostess station by Betty, the luminous former waitress at the incomparable and much missed (to this day, I dream of its timbale tuna) Nouveau Noodles restaurant in Tijeras.
At Nouveau, Betty was a whirling dervish of perpetual motion and the restaurant’s consummate ambassador. As warm and effusive a waitress as you’ll find anywhere, Betty’s unabashed enthusiasm for Nouveau’s cuisine was evident in her flowingly eloquent descriptions of the restaurant’s menu items–polysyllabic descriptions which she peppered with adjectives synonymous with fabulous. We trusted her recommendations and appreciated the personable and attentive service she lavished upon us.
After seating us at Zea, she cautioned against any pre-conceived notions we might have about chain restaurants, indicating this one was was different. She explained that Zea was founded in New Orleans in 1997 and that its founders’ goal is to celebrate the cultural phenomenon that is eating and drinking for the sheer pleasure of it (sounds like my kind of people).
There are currently five Zea locations in the New Orleans area, a tough restaurant market. Zea also has locations in Lafayette, Covington and Baton Rouge, Louisiana as well as Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama with franchise locations in Plano, Texas, Pensacola, Florida and Albuquerque–all apparently markets which covet dining and drinking for the sheer pleasure of it. The Albuquerque restaurant is stylish and modern with Anasazi stonework complementing neutral colors. It is an attractive venue with good spacing between tables to allow for privacy.
Betty recommended an appetizer called Mediterranean Hummus Supreme, the consorting of sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, roasted garlic, Roma tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and herbs layered on a bed of creamy hummus and served with grilled pita bread and seasoned rotisserie lamb. It was an excellent starter when we first sampled it shortly after Zea opened and it remains an excellent starter years later. In its annual food and wine issue, Albuquerque The Magazine accorded its prestigious Hot Plate Award to this appetizer. The magazine indicated it is “impossible to stop dipping, dunking and devouring.”
Following Betty’s recommendation, I had the St Louis ribs prepared Thai style, a half-rack of fall-off-the-bone tender ribs bathed in a sweet and spicy Thai sauce reminiscent of the chili sauce you might find at a Vietnamese restaurant. The ribs , which are served wet, dry or Thai were good and thankfully not quite as sweet as Betty whom we discovered has legions of fans in the Duke City who appreciate her attentive service and sage recommendations. Alas, Betty left Albuquerque in 2008 and we have yet to find a waitress nearly as attentive.
While Betty may be gone, the remaining wait staff is friendly and attentive, not the sort to hover while you’re trying to hold a conversation or time their visits to when your mouth is full. In fact, sometimes the best thing that can be said about a wait staff is that it’s not especially noticeable. Save for Betty, others who have saved us haven’t made a memorable impression, but that’s not a bad thing.
Zea’s concept is based on “inspired American food,” a broad concept describing a melting pot of Mediterranean, Thai, Cajun and New Mexican inspired entrees and appetizers. Soup du jour selections, in fact, include two featuring green chile. Salads are inventive and large enough to share, the type of salads which fill you up in the manner of large entrees. Unless you’re a professional gurgitator, you probably wouldn’t be able to finish a salad and an item from the rotisserie meats and poultry menu.
Items on this menu are served with two sides, all large enough to put a dent on any appetite. The sauteed corn is so heavily buttered, it may put a dent on your waistline, too. What corn wouldn’t be delicious when swimming in a pool of melted butter. Other sides include roasted corn grits, Zea potatoes, Thai snap beans, buttered sweet potatoes, red beans, vegetable du jour, French fries and sugar snap beans.
The menu is further segmented into grilled entrees, seafood, pasta and sandwiches. Portions are profuse, most big enough to share. The Mixed Rotisserie and Grill entree is a veritable meatfest and perhaps the largest entree on the menu: half a rack of ribs, half a chicken and a quarter-pound of the rotisserie meat of the day with two sides. The chicken has an almost lacquered sheen on the outside and is grilled to perfection so it remains moist on the inside. The ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and meaty. The rotisserie pork, served with a rosemary roasted garlic glace, is also quite good, albeit heavily salted.
Not quite as appetizing is the twice cooked crispy duck, a Maple Leaf Farms duckling slow-roasted then crisped and served with Asian herbs and a honey soy sauce. One of my pet peeves is seafood or duck served with either a fruity or cloying sauce that masks the inherent flavors of the duck or seafood item. Zea’s honey soy sauce is cloying, almost dessert-sweet. This entree’s saving grace is the crispy duck skin–and a few napkins to wipe away some of the sauce. The duckling is otherwise good–tender, moist and delicious, but that sauce has got to go.
Another item Betty steered me toward is the Asian Tuna Salad, made with enough Romaine lettuce to keep a migrant farmer employed for a week. It is served with marinated and seared sashimi tuna (four strips about half-inch thick), carrots, fried noodles, Asian herbs, sesame seeds and roasted almonds laced with peanut vinaigrette. The peanut vinaigrette is reminiscent of the peanut sauce often served with satay in Thai restaurants. It’s a bit on the sweet side, but not overly so.
One item not on my plans for future visits is the shrimp etouffe served with brown rice. On the sole occasion in which we had this entree, the shrimp, though plentiful, had a mealy texture. It was enough to detract from the flavorful roux and its otherwise good flavor.
Zea Rotisserie & Grill has the look and feel of a restaurant you visit only on special occasions, but it’s priced reasonably, especially considering the portion size.
LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Mediterranean Hummus Supreme, St Louis Ribs Thai Style