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
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
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
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
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
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
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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