Seeing as I'd dissed Zimzala's management before even setting foot in the place, I thought it fair to actually check it out (anonymously, of course). I'm glad I did.
The setting--within HB's groovy new Shorebreak Hotel--is unlike many other hotel restaurants. This is a destination restaurant, with a highly regarded chef, not an afterthought.
The Executive Chef is Vincent Muraco, formerly of Vix in Miami Beach. He has created the Mediterranean menu in collaboration with award-winning chef Joyce Goldstein, so there's some serious talent at the helm.
As for the ethos behind the restaurant, Muraco once said, "Source the best ingredients, keep it simple and don't fuck it up", while Goldstein puts it more poetically: "Simple food, simply prepared, with the best fresh ingredients... not overly refined by too much analysis and made frivolous by fussiness of presentation."
Okay, the setting isn't as spectacular as, say, the luxury hotels in Laguna Beach and Dana Point (you know which ones), and it's on the second floor with barely an ocean view (unless you're sitting on the patio), but it's the beachy, surfy, we're-on-vacation feel that wins you over. Zimzala, after all, means "Free-spirited person who finds peace with the sand between their toes".
The space is essentially one huge room, split into three different sections. Well-known firm De Lisle, Philpotts & Staub Interiors was appointed for the design, and it was a good call.
To get to the dining area you have to walk through the bar, which, on our Sunday-night visit, was mellow yet vibrant, home to a cool crowd sipping cocktails. Next, a loungey area next to the kitchen, with couches and tea lights, then, finally, the dining room. The room is softly lit, with a brick wall to one side, and surfing-themed photos covering the wall. There's leather benching, granite-covered tables and woven placemats. In the background plays music reminiscent of a chill-out room in an Ibizan club: salsa, jazz and ambient.
I always get jittery when the server has to explain the menu's quirks and foibles. Ours started with the dreaded "this is a communal dining experience" spiel, but it made sense: he advised either sharing a starter then having an entrée each (as we did), or having two starters and sharing an entrée. The only problem is that everything on the menu is so tempting you'll have a hard time choosing. It's not especially lengthy but it is very appealing. Take, for example, saffron seafood soup and Portuguese crab cakes with piri piri aioli (both appetizers), or grilled lamb kebabs marinated in pomegranate and red wine and stone-oven flatbread with Italian sausage (main courses). Next time, we're going with a group.
The other idiosyncracies? Unlimited purified water for $2, which was a bargain considering how frequently they replenished it. And an honor bar for the home-made limoncello, which a server brought over soon after we sat down. We passed on that, so they removed it a short while later. (But I would recommend trying it if you like liqueurs.)
Sadly, the one thing the waiter didn't mention was the $100 three-course tasting menu with wine pairings for two, which is being offered during the hotel's first 100 days--until the end of August. Indeed, throughout the evening, service was chatty and well-meaning, but very slow and occasionally ditzy, as if all the staff had taken Zimzala's low-key vibe to heart. And it's not as if they were run off their feet: aside from us, there were only two other couples in the restaurant.
But, oh, the food.
First, complimentary warm focaccia, dusted with crunchy salt and accompanied by olive oil with fresh herbs (rosemary was particularly noticeable). Next, an amuse-bouche of crab salad wrapped in lettuce with grapefruit coulis. The clean, crisp flavors shone through.
Then, our appetizer, beautifully presented, on a tiered white serving plate. Despite there being plenty for two, we almost came to blows over the granular hummus, thick tzatziki, warm pita bread, julienned carrots with feta and herbs, and melt-in-the-mouth Turkish "cigar" (soft cheese in gossamer-thin pastry).
Our first entrée, Moroccan chicken tagine, came in a blue ceramic tagine that I wanted to steal. The dish consisted of two legs of chicken, the meat so tender it fell off the bone. Soft carrots, olives, onions and the chicken juices livened up the delicately spiced cous cous. The portion was huge--definitely big enough for two people (it tasted even better straight out of the fridge for lunch the next day). On the downside, it was a tad salty.
Our second main course was Portuguese onion-smothered rib eye with crisp potatoes and chili flakes. The portion was a normal size, and the dish faultless. The onions were perfectly caramelized, the potatoes crunchy but not cooked to oblivion, the meat tender and not fussed around with.
Dessert ($8) was irresistible, not that we had room for it. Both choices were winners. Almond semolina cake, topped with walnuts, came with caramelized rhubarb that was a little undercooked (but no doubt healthier for it). Cinnamon-orange crema catalana, decorated with a trio of raspberries, had a melt-in-the-mouth consistency that juxtaposed perfectly with the two accompanying sugar-dusted ricotta fritters.
It turned out Muraco wasn't even cooking that night, which speaks volumes for the aptitude of the sous-chefs, Matt James Tymoszewicz and Joey Nagy.
As with any restaurant, there are a few gripes... First of all, you can only make reservations after 3 p.m (at other times, you leave a message and they call you back). Personally, I find that annoying. Secondly, service was glacially slow. I'm all for laid-back, but our meal took two and a half hours. Thirdly, Zimzala isn't cheap (around $100 for two plus drinks, although admittedly we had opted for the most expensive thing on the menu, the rib eye, at $33). In my view it's worth it, especially for a special occasion--and if it's a really big one, there's always that $1245 bottle of Cristal on the wine list.
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On the other hand, if your budget won't stretch that far, Zimzala a lovely setting for a quick bar bite and a drink. The bar menu includes the mezze plate, the crab cakes, crispy fried chickpeas, hummus and pita chips, the obligatory burger and Moroccan (curiously, not Turkish) "cigars" with tzatziki and so on. Wines are wide-ranging, covering France, Italy, Spain and, veering off the Mediterranean theme, Australia, California and Washington. Delerium Tremens pale ale from Belgium and Mythos lager from Greece are among the beers, while cocktails include a tumbler-sized margarita that's a dead ringer for lemonade.
And last but not least, there's only one restroom--unisex, at that. There are other toilets out past the reception area, but that's hardly a convenient, er, convenience.
Do go to Zimzala to try the seductive Med menu, but plan for a long, leisurely "experience".
Zimzala at 500 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, (714) 960-5050; http://restaurantzimzala.com. Open for breakfast Mon.-Fri., 7-10 a.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; lunch Mon.-Fri 11.30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thur., 6-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. Lounge open Sun.-Thur, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-midnight. (Bar menu available all day). Dinner entrées $8-$33. Bar menu $4-$15. Full bar.