October 15, 2009
Thoroughly modern in its look, menu and approach to food and wine, Zaidi's is an oasis of independent thought in a chain-dining desert. I hope the locals provide enough support, because this is a place that deserves to live.
So far, the year-old restaurant, on the south end of Naperville's stretch of Illinois Highway 59, keeps people coming with a nonstop barrage of enticements at its Z-Bar lounge. Z-Bar offers early bird specials -- three course dinners from $17 to $20 on weeknights -- and various drink and appetizer deals, and there's live music Thursdays through Sundays. The lounge is hopping.
The dining room has been less crowded the days I've visited (both times on weekends), but it certainly has its charms. The black-and-red color scheme is carried out via ceiling panels, some abstract circles that dress up a support column and a series of red-glass wall panels, each one bearing a diaphanous image of a mermaid. Spidery blown-glass light fixtures hover over the black-leather booths. It's more an '80s or '90s look than something you'd expect to see today, but it's clean and sharp and certainly nice enough for the dress-up crowd.
The name refers to owner Zaidi Syed, who conceived the restaurant's Asian-Latin fusion concept. His menu includes a great many sushi options, which, thanks to sushi chef Sam Nikimoto, are always good bets. His signature rolls are especially good, particularly the Fuego del Mar, which combines crabmeat and Cajun-spiced tuna with jalapenos, cucumbers and stripes of spicy mayonnaise. It packs a punch with some bite; more conservative palates will prefer the toro sake, which tops high-quality tuna with salmon tartare, or the light-tasting smoked-salmon roll with eel and avocado.
Plated starters are highlighted by the duck tacos, a quartet of mini tacos in hard corn shells, filled with confit-style duck meat over spicy kimchi cabbage; a drizzle of avocado salsa tempers the kimchi sufficiently, and there's plenty of rich-tasting meat. The seared foie gras is a bit of a traffic jam, a case of too many ingredients with an Asian pear cobbler, crumbled Marcona almonds (past their prime, sadly) and a Pedro Ximenez sherry reduction competing for attention.
Entrees can be similarly hit and miss. The hands-down hit: roasted short ribs, served on the bone (looking rather like a lamb shank) amid a pile of mashed potatoes seasoned aggressively with ancho chile and cumin. A dark mole coats the meat, and the complementary seasonings pull this dish together beautifully. Duck breast, served with leg-thigh confit, a plum demiglace and compote of dried fruits, is another winner.
But a special, a double stack of beef filets and lobster cakes, was a disaster. The beef was ordinary, the malbec reduction sauce a snore and the disastrously oversalted lobster cakes were beyond repair. Pan-seared tuna was better -- high quality, rare tuna over gentle bok choy with a reduced teriyaki sauce underneath -- but the orange-cilantro butter on the tuna was overkill. Simplify, simplify.
There's a touted side dish of roasted potato planks, smothered with bleu-cheese sauce, crumbled bleu cheese and applewood bacon. Down this mess and you'll be drinking water all night.
Desserts are fine; the calabaza pumpkin cake with chocolate mousse and butterscotch whipped cream is a fun little sugar buzz, and the pineapple carrot cake with orange blossom honey sabayon is respectable. The most enjoyable sweet is the simplest -- a plate of sugar-sprinkled mini-doughnuts with caramel and chocolate dipping sauces.
The wine lockers by the host stand and the glassed-in wine room between the dining room and bar are mute testimony to the serious wine program. The wine list carries an astonishing number of California cult wines -- Syed spent a bundle acquiring some of these beauties -- and those people looking for a special-evening bottle will have plenty from which to choose. I do think, however, that Zaidi's needs to expand its modestly priced offerings; aficionados may rave over the Plumpjack, but Zaidi's will make more friends in the $30 to $40 neighborhood.
Service is surprisingly good; there's a lot to learn in a menu this big, food this unusual and a wine cellar this deep, but the youngsters who work the floor seem to know it all.
Zaidi's has promise and ambition to burn, but probably would benefit by cooling its jets just a bit. A tighter menu focus (20 entrees a night is about eight too many), and a more attentive kitchen would improve things greatly.
Zaidi's1975 Springbrook Square Drive, Naperville
Open: Dinner Mon.-Sun., lunch Mon.-Fri.
Entree prices: $18.99-$33.99
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Recommended weekends
Other: Wheelchair accessible; free parking
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