Two Dinners at ZZest Market & Cafe in Rochester, MN
Editor’s Note: We don’t get much news from Rochester, so when two stories on ZZest Market & Cafe arrived in our inbox over the course of two days, we were a bit surprised. The subject matter suggested bundling, rather than a choice — one story is a brief review, the other a detailed account of a six-course chef’s dinner. We hope you enjoy both.
There is a silent battle going on in Rochester, Minnesota, and I’m not referring to Mayo Clinic’s fight against all the deadly diseases whose symptoms are vague at best. The town is divided on how to pronounce the name of one of its tastiest restaurants. ZZest opened in 2009. The owners Jerry and LeeAnn Zubay, and all its employees confirm it is pronounced Zest, saying, “two ‘Z’s’ for twice the zest.” However, many patrons have found that out in the community, should you refer to “Zest” you will find yourself corrected, “It’s called Zee Zest.” It’s a struggle to proselytize and after a while one finds it easier to pronounce the extra “Z” in ZZest, just to avoid the inevitable conversation.
The one thing everyone agrees on is the food. Billing itself as “a market by day and a restaurant by night,” ZZest’s menu changes daily and features seasonal choices prepared with many of the gourmet ingredients found in the market. Starters include hackleback caviar with crème fraiche on caraway and rye crackers, or homemade skordalia — a Greek white bean and garlic spread made with potato, and piquillo peppers. Pan-seared diver scallops flown in from Massachusetts may be served with a roasted sweet potato puree with vanilla bean, sautéed pea shoots, macarona almonds, and a touch of pomegranate molasses.
A farm fresh lamb leg steak from Lambalot Acres in Augusta, WI may be served on top of greens with lima bean socca, pantaleo cheese, apple, preserved plum, and cubeb pepper. If any of those ingredients don’t sound familiar to you, the meal may inspire you to swing through the market on the way home and pick up something new. There are numerous oils, vinegars, honeys, chutneys, chocolate, and crackers on hand, plus cheeses and charcuterie, both local and imported from across the country and the world. Free samples play up the staff’s friendly attitude.
It was easy to be skeptical about the buzz around ZZest’s food. The Zubays are also partners in Creative Cuisine, the company behind five popular downtown Rochester restaurants. While each of these have their merits and on average the food is good, none are known for producing the kind of meal one thinks about the next week, or raves about to friends. ZZest’s food is in a different class.
The atmosphere is that of a casual café embedded inside a market. The small space, open kitchen and neon “open” sign glowing in the window may be better suited for lunch (which they also serve). The prices however, reflect the quality of ingredients. The majority of the entrees cost around $22 and the restaurant boasts a strong wine list.
The best solution to this atmosphere vs. price and food quality incongruity may to be to come during the warm months when the patio is open. Overlooking the Zumbro River, it makes a credible claim for being the nicest patio in Rochester, where many of the outdoor eating options involve looking out over a parking lot. With luck, continued success will lead to an expansion and an additional dining room with an ambiance that pairs well with the food.
– Emily Friedman
New Year’s Eve Dinner at ZZest
When my parents moved to Rochester over 25 years ago, a Red Lobster followed close behind to a tizzy of anticipation and approval. Decades later, that Red Lobster moved to the Apache Mall and the crowd’s enthusiasm was no less piqued than for the first opening.
John Flicek nods all this off in his customary good humor. Dressed in his chef’s blacks, Flicek takes stock of his little corner of culinary empire, ZZest Market & Café. “There’s not a lot in Rochester,” he admits. This can be a mixed blessing for foodie establishments.
Planning out the special tasting menu for his New Year’s Eve dinner, Flicek tries to walk a fine line between pleasing gourmand regulars — well versed in ZZest’s changing cheese boards and whole smoked fish — and first-timers looking for a delicious way to ring in the new year.
My party is somewhere in between. We’ve got local doctors from the Mayo Clinic, some recovering California sojourners, and a couple in from (and missing) Hawaii. Of the two seatings offered, we chose the late one, assuming that’s where the party people were hiding. Turns out, Rochester doesn’t really have party people. But it does have some good food.
Amuse Bouche: Foie gras pate served on crostini with a blueberry gastrique
A fine way to begin our gustatory salute to 2012, along with a thankful nod that none of us still live in California where foie gras will soon be a thing of the past.
1st: Mixed greens with a (kickin’) lemon herb vinaigrette
Those very same meat eaters so happy to partake of the verboten goods moments earlier were just as eagerly assaulting this salad, whose full, tender leaves could stand up to a knife nobly.
Flicek likes to keep it simple. The salad is just leaves. No nuts, no dried fruit, no drowning in dressing.
Flicek’s pull to food doesn’t start with some sort of founding myth. It starts, instead, in a bowling alley in Wabasha. He began working in the kitchen there, putting chicken in the fryers, rolling out pizza dough, and slicing meat when he was 12. And he liked it.
“I always enjoyed being in kitchens, I guess. There’s usually good people in the industry,” Flicek says.
2nd: Charcuterie and cheese crostini featuring a blended Italian cheese, toma della rocca, and a cured cut from happy, oak-forest-roaming Iberian pigs (a product only available in the States in the past few years)
ZZest opened in 2009 in the very capable hands of LeeAnn and Jerry Zubay (the restaurateurs behind several popular downtown locations including City Café, Newt’s, and The Redwood Room) and Flicek has been around from the beginning.
LeeAnn is in the market most days and Jerry helps serve occasionally (his business card reads, “Manager’s husband”). They’ve whole-heartedly embraced local purveyors, but have equal love for unique international goods like jamón Iberico de bellota.
We love it. Even a repeat crostini is welcome when it brings a sweet piece of ham with it.
3rd: Chilean Sea Bass served on a sunchoke salad and black olive tapenade
Even with four courses to go, we can tell that this is the crowd pleaser. The goods are so fresh, there’s little the kitchen could have done to hide that. It doesn’t hurt that Flicek graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis in 2004.
The buttery soft fish flesh, the bright crunch of the sunchoke, and salty flavors of the tapenade combine to make the first complete, complex dish of the night.
An old man dressed up for the occasion sits alone at the table behind us. He’s been taking pictures of each course with his iPhone, texting them to someone. At the end of the night he will declare this to be his favorite dish to the bearded, tattooed waiter clearing his plates.
4th: House pancetta wrapped day-boat scallop with a salad of shredded Brussels sprouts and sautéed apples drizzled with pomegranate molasses
Nearly half of Rochester’s employees work in health-related industries, thanks in large part to the Mayo Clinic. Of the roughly 107,000 residents, 82 percent are white.
But on Saturdays, the farmers’ market offers a different view than the Census data — one heavy on Hmong flower sellers and Norwegian lefse makers. Flicek has been going to the market for the past six or seven years and watched it grow.
This is where Flicek begins his menus. He says they’re a lot of rough drafts coordinated with what his suppliers have on hand. Though the series of Chef Dinners only got underway recently, Flicek is constantly changing the restaurant’s lineup.
Flicek sees the restaurant’s small size, made even smaller with the seasonal loss of the patio, as a benefit.
“We can change the menu whenever we want to, so if were out of something, we just move onto something else. I can get a whole pig in here, butcher it, and have 15 or 20 pork loins, then I’ll move on to a different part of the animal.”
Intermezzo: High Road berry prosecco sorbet with a moat of ruby grapefruit olive oil
Diners sitting at the bar have begun to lean together, arms resting jovially around each other. The list of wine and beer pairings has come in handy and it doesn’t hurt that the evening began with a doorbuster glass of Champagne.
We’re a table of eight and none of us seem to find the same way of slurping down the slippery sorbet served in individual spoons.
There’s a bit of a lag as our attention turns to the trumpet playing lazily in the background or the now rain-spattered row of windows looking onto the dark parking lot.
ZZest sits at the far end of a strip mall and across from the Apache Mall. Flicek says it’s an odd and overlooked location, but word seems to be getting out and the Chef Dinners always fill up fast. And who knows, maybe the occasional shopper burnt out on Cinnabon and Orange Julius finds his way into ZZest and a new dining experience.
5th: Grass-fed beef short rib with peppercorn and cocoa nib on a celeriac puree with golden chanterelles
We get back to the task at hand and dig in to the chocolate-colored hunk of meat happily. Like Twizzlers peeling apart, the fibrous pinky flesh yields to our forks, but we’re all quite taken with the celeriac puree.
Flicek cites his time as an intern at Nosh Restaurant & Bar for fueling his passion for fine dining and interest in local purveyors. But he doesn’t get out much around Rochester. “I usually don’t go out to eat here to be honest with you,” says Flicek, “I got a wife and a three-month-old at home.”
He hasn’t, for example, noticed the taco truck and nominally Somali food cart new to the streets this past year. But he says he looks forward to some new foodie destinations coming to town.
6th: House bread pudding with white and dark chocolate, Ceylon cinnamon and Bourbon, vanilla cream in a Somerskogen Sugarbush maple syrup reduction
We’ve been eyeing this one on the menu for awhile; one bread pudding enthusiast in particular spotted it seconds after sitting down. It was exactly the kind of comfort Flicek speaks of so reverently.
For all the place names preceding each ingredient, the dishes are familiar, if simply better tasting.
The rain hasn’t let up and diners are reluctant to leave. It’s that feeling you get when you know you’re at the best party, the best restaurant, the best spot in town.
The kitchen lights go out and people start to meander out as well, picking up goodie bags with coffee cake for tomorrow’s breakfast. Flicek and his hard-working crew are enjoying a beer at the back of the kitchen. He has plans to go home and split a bottle of wine with his wife while, fingers crossed, the baby sleeps through the midnight countdown.
We eventually make a dash to our cars in the rain that feels somehow festive and drive past the deserted mall parking lot and dark Red Lobster. It’s the first time in months I’ve seen the mall empty and it feels like a nice way to start the new year.
– Leah Binkovitz
1190 16 St SW #600
Rochester, MN 55902
closed Sunday & Monday
CHEF / OWNER: John Flicek/LeeAnn Zubay
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: A few, most tables held for walk-in
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / sometimes, menu changes daily
ENTREE PRICE: $15-25 for dinner, $39 for four course/chef selected taste