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Zinc Cafe

by James Verde

Zinc Cafe: All the Elements
679 Stokes Road, Medford
(609) 953-9462
3 forks

According to medical wisdom, everyone could do with a little more zinc. The element is thought to bolster immunity, expedite healing, boost energy, relieve stress and aid digestion. Zinc Cafe, a charming, homey-chic mainstay of the Medford restaurant scene for the past three years, should serve tablets of its eponymous mineral as a chaser for the generous portions of crowd-pleasing American fare. I should have known when the baked brie arrived. Wrapped like a Christmas present in golden puff pastry, the wheel of soft French cheese looked almost too good to eat. The first cut freed a flow of brie, oozing onto a plate furnished with sliced apples, toasted almonds and a web of straw-yellow honey. There’s nothing revolutionary about the appetizer; brie has been served this way for centuries. But there’s something to be said about a classic done right. Tangy cheese, tart apple, sweet honey, buttery pastry and earthy nuts. If you can manage to get all those elements onto your fork at once, the flavor payoff is explosive and incredibly satisfying.

Split the brie with your dinner date. Please. It’s good enough to polish off yourself, but you’ll need to save room because owners Robin and Chris Sammons put out some solid food, with Chris manning the kitchen. No wonder a recent weekend found every single one of the 45 seats in the softly lit dining room occupied. I was glad I’d made a reservation. Even the 10 tables on the foliage-fringed front patio were filled, staffed by a troupe of affable, all-in-black waitresses wandering in and out, bearing vases of skinny breadsticks, plates of chicken satay, fragrant heaps of lemongrass-steamed clams and piles of ethereal fried calamari.

Zinc coats their rings of squid in flour before deep-frying and tossing them in grated parmesan, and the results are uncommonly light and crisp, with an enlightening stroke of salinity from the aged cheese. Instead of the usual marinara, thick, cool, garlic-scented aioli came on the side to dip, and hiding beneath the calamari mountain, industrious eaters will find an entire salad of crisp, well-dressed, lemony greens.

But as agreeable as these dishes were, others were disappointments. Clumped and tough, the “black and white” linguine looked like the matted wig to a Cruella de Vil costume.

Available in half and whole portions—Zinc smartly markets all their pastas this way—the noodles made an inhospitable home for overcooked scallops and acrid garlic chips in a mousy white wine/butter sauce.

Mounded with crispy onions and a doubloon of herbed butter, the hulking Angus rib eye was way too fatty for its own good, and I was forced to play butcher, trimming the excess as I ate. For my money, I’ll stick with the pork tenderloin. Cooked beautifully, the lean, tender meat glistened inside. Perky whole-grain mustard sauce was a natural accent for the pork, rich and creamy with some lingering sharpness, while plump golden raisin chutney dealt strokes of sweet and sour that gave the pig’s mild savor a little va-va-voom.

The candy bar cake, meanwhile, is exactly what it sounds like: chocolate on chocolate on chocolate, crusted with shards of toffee and peanut butter cups. It was so rich, sweet and decadent, I could only manage a few forkfuls before forfeiting. Fortunately, the servers are quick with a carry-out container for the extra. Our waitress glanced at the cake, served per our request with a boulder of vanilla ice cream, and grinned: “I know what I’m having for dinner tonight.”

Photo: (Douglas Bovitt) The rib eye is mounded high with crispy onions and herbed butter at zinc cafe.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6 (September, 2011).
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