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Za Restaurant
147 West Delaware Avenue
Pennington, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 737-4400

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
October 9, 2006

When Za opened its doors this past July (2006), the proprietors, the Brothers Valenza, obviously hit the ground at full stride. Located on the site of the old Café Rosario in a tiny strip mall just off Route 31 in Pennington, this casual, unpretentious BYOB became an immediate hit with local residents; and, even as I write, the good news continues to spread. Mark Valenza -- an alumnus of the French Culinary Institute in New York City and veteran of such notable kitchens as the Frenchtown Inn and Princeton's nodo and Triumph Brewing Company -- holds forth as the power behind the stove, while his brother, Chaz, a seasoned restaurateur, charms patrons at the front of the house.

The interior is a narrow but cheery space, sporting bright yellow walls and attractive adornment of artfully framed seed packets. There is even a wisteria covered outdoor patio for alfresco dining in warmer weather. It is the food, however, that causes the stir here. Chef Valenza lovingly describes it as "cross cultural comfort cuisine... a commingling of international dishes with classic French cooking techniques using fresh American ingredients, including handpicked herbs from the restaurant's terrace garden." And the results of this intriguing amalgam are exciting, indeed.

Appetizers, for example, include such diversified offerings as a broiled portobello mushroom ($8.00) and Roman semolina gnocchi ($10.00). The former is crowned with caramelized onion, fresh breadcrumbs, parsley & bacon, and served up with a drizzle of arugula oil. The latter is comprised of feathery hand-rolled semolina dumplings companioned by Prosciutto de Parma and house mozzarella. The pièce de résistance is a heady marinara diavolo sauce.

Even those preludes that many would consider more straightforward benefit from the chef's charmingly innovative tweaks and twists. Fried American white shrimp ($11.00), which held a prominent place on the summer menu, were paired with a just-spicy-enough pico de gallo; a traditional Caesar salad ($9.00) was given an entirely new lease on life with an invigorating splash of Stilton blue; and the steamed, beautifully textured miso pork dumplings ($8.00) luxuriated in an enticing miso-black bean broth, were accompanied by cubes of fried tofu, and dressed with shaved radish and green onion.

Entrées are equally arresting. Only seven items are listed on the current printed menu, with a select number of daily specials recited by your server. This past summer's "Main Lobster Picnic" ($29.00), for example, was a palpable hit. Freshly-shelled lobster meat was teamed with delicious lightly grilled peaches, ripe, juicy tomato wedges, corn rounds, warm roasted potato salad, and finished with drawn sherry butter and citrus fruit.

The tuna au poivre ($27.00) was another highly recommended seafood presentation. Succulently meaty slices of very rare, pan-seared sushi-grade tuna arrived at table encrusted with cracked black pepper and white sesame seeds riding on a wave of exotic peanut bean thread noodles. Consummatory embellishments included apple salsa, tiara of onion crisps, and a marvelous raspberry soy sauce.

For carnivores, the Korean-spiced barbecued steak ($22.00) was a distinct winner. The skirt steak basked in a marinade of ginger, soy, and brown sugar; it was then grilled and served up in exceedingly tender, mouthwatering slices on a bed of luscious, though slightly timid, wasabi smashed potatoes.

With the coming of the fall season, Chef Valenza has inaugurated an entirely new array of tempting main courses. You may, for example, feast on the classic sole bonne femme ($29.00), a pristine filet and imperial lump crabmeat poached in a shallot, mushroom, and white wine fumet served over saffron rice and consummated with a rich broiled double cream sauce.

Meat lovers, on the other hand, would do well to set their sights on either the fricassee lamb shank ($27.00) or the grilled brasciole ($26.00). The former is served with impossible-to-resist caramelized onion smashed potatoes, baby pattypan squash & peas, and finished with a white wine trinity coulis. The latter incorporates a luscious grilled skirt steak rolled with chorizo sausage, spinach & Parmesan cheese, and served over a creamy pillow of mushroom risotto enhanced with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar reduction.

The schnitzel Viennese ($23.00) is yet another delicious possibility. A segment of center-cut pork is pounded thin, coated with panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs, and then sautéed to a beautiful golden brown. The finishing touch is a savory Granny Smith apple cream sauce.

During my several visits, I sampled a triptych of luscious desserts. As a confirmed chocoholic and peanut butter freak, I headed immediately for the chocolate/peanut butter crunch mousse, an extravagant amalgam of creamy chocolate mousse and topping of peanut butter wafers. Also sampled were an excellent strawberry & caramel mascarpone cream cake and a fabulously rich banana & walnut Foster (caramelized segments of banana & walnuts flambéed in brandy, butter & banana liqueur, and served over vanilla bean ice cream). With the coming of the new fall menu, the choices have undoubtedly changed; however, rest assured that Mr. Valenza's sweet endings will not disappoint; also be assured that they are worthy of their rather hefty price tag ($9.00).

Za is just the kind of restaurant that every community needs: a casual and classy BYOB that serves up a comforting variety of eclectic fare in a pleasant environment with top-notch service. Kudos to the Brothers Valenza!

Cuisine: "Cross Cultural Comfort Cuisine"
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for both brunch/lunch and dinner. Dinner seating 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. Sunday; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.zarestaurants.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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