Zest Cafe & Home Art
8831 Six Forks Rd
Hours: Tue-Fri: 10 am-8 pm, Sat-Sun:
Review Date: April 1, 1997
Reviewers: Serenity & Keith Dixon and Dilip Barman
Three of us met at what initially seemed appeared to be a snazzy and bright upscale kitchen gadget store. Indeed, the eclectic household items are for sale, and Zest Cafe has tables tucked away to one side. The atmosphere was bright, contemporary, "Pier One" (as both the Dixons described it), and we were to find the high quality and carefully prepared food would follow suit.
It seemed that about a third of the menu items were vegetarian, but the staff aims to please in its careful preparation of each dish, and special requests can expand the vegetarian choices even more. For appetizers, we could order hummus with herb bread ($3.50), a "bucket of honest to goodness tortilla chips" with salsa (4.00), tomato soup (3.75; I don't know if it was vegetarian, but nobody ordered it in any case), or a salad -- Garden Salad Bowl (7.95), Zesty Caesar Salad (4.50; comes with cheese, but that can be left off), or House Salad (3.95).
The staff was very kind and clearly quite knowledgeable about food. The owner, Marvin, in particular impressed all of us with his passion for food and its gourmet presentation, as well as his sense of humor (he pretended to be a test proctor while we wrote up our review sheets). In addition to the hummus appetizer that we shared, Marvin brought out complimentary grilled vegetables as well as stuffed green peppers with potatoes and wild rice for us to try. None of us especially cared for the hummus - it was dull and flat, and didn't come with enough bread. However, everything was up from here! The grilled vegetables -- roasted red pepper, zucchini, purple and spring onions (very strong! shaped like flowers!!), and mushrooms -- were light and tasty, and beautifully presented. The peppers were unexpectedly spicy and hot, but were served with a wonderful roasted red pepper sauce (this is the place to go if you like roasted red peppers!) and black bean paste that helped to tune down the heat.
For our main courses, Serenity and Keith ordered Far Eastern veggie spring rolls (8.95; 3 steamed rolls of hand-cut cabbage, carrot, scallion, eggplant, snow pea, ginger, and peanut with black rice and sweet sesame soy dipping sauce). They both enjoyed the rolls and found that the nice brown rice they came with set the flavor off nicely. Serenity raved, "I thoroughly enjoyed the spring rolls. I had never had them steamed (as opposed to fried) and it really gave the contents of the spring roll a chance to come out. It was a fabulous blend of textures and tastes - sweet and spicy, crunchy and soft. You could really taste each individual item". I tried them too but found them a bit "blah" - but then I don't like spring rolls, though I appreciated that these were eggless, steamed, and healthy.
I ordered, from their "Los Platos de Cocina Mexicana", a quesadilla (listed as roasted chicken quesadilla for 9.95, they made a vegetarian one and I think charged 7.95). I enjoyed it - it had great flavor, was beautifully presented (a common theme at this restaurant), and had delicious and filling ingredients, including plenty of good avocado. Keith liked it too, but Serenity doesn't like avocados, so wasn't crazy about the quesadilla.
Other choices we had were spring asparagus ziti (8.95), Pizzesta (7.95 with chicken, mango-pineapple salsa, provolone cheese, and served with ginger cabbage slaw - leave out the chicken, obviously), Zest fresh tacos (8.95; with grilled onion and unfried beans), and Monster veggie burrito (8.95 and supposed to be for a really big appetite). They were actively trying to encourage family dining (hence the rejection of our suggestion that they dim the lights), so sported a "For Kids" menu too - noodles & cheese with fruit (4.50), grilled cheese Zestwich (4.50), PBJ Zestwich with fruit & chips (4.50), and cheese Pizzesta with fruit (5.25).
Alas, there were no vegan or lacto desserts. The Dixons are both ovolacto, and couldn't resist choosing from items like red velvet cake, chocolate/peanut butter pie, and a banana praline "trifle" (like banana pudding and shortbread). They were thrilled with the trifle that they shared - both pronounced it "great!".
We were very impressed with the delightful and relaxed atmosphere - cafe snuggled into an eclectic store stocked with lots of bright colors, festive multi-cultural music playing. Too bad they couldn't dim the lights; we found it hard to tell from the outside that it wasn't just a store. The staff was very friendly and clearly aimed to please, and by no means just at our table. The chef Bob spoke with us at length about the artistry of their work and their interest in experimenting and getting the food right for each individual patron.
The menu is flexible and non-vegetarian items can easily be made vegetarian. The presentation of the food was unequalled in my experience - very gourmet! The portions were filling, reasonably healthy, very creative, but somewhat pricey. Though Keith and Serenity had no complaints, I found the flavors sometimes too subtle, but definitely exhibiting good creative blendings of ingredients and ideas.
Suggestions? Label the menu for vegetarians and make it clear that special requests are happily honored. Expand the selection just a bit and have some items with less subtle flavors. Maybe add a juice bar, highlighting "exotic" fruits like mango and papaya. Bring out the restaurant through creative lighting, sidewalk-sawhorse advertising, or other means.
Zest is a beautiful and small restaurant where the staff has clear cooking expertise, has a lot of fun delighting their customers, and practice culinary artistry. It seemed to us to be too fun of a place to be tucked into a North Raleigh mall, and seemed to belong in Chapel Hill. Wherever you live, try adding some Zest to your dining - you'll be glad you did.