For some, people-watching is a delightful pastime; one indulges in the nuances and idiosyncrasies behind every passerby while sipping a beautiful brew-full at a café or sitting idly on a park bench while enjoying a lazy lounge lizard afternoon. For the staff that operates and manages Zuni Restaurant in Greenbelt 5 in Makati, the term takes on a new level of mind-blowing. “We have to be very observant,” explains General Manager Francis Dimaculangan, “We keep your name in mind and take note of every little detail on your first visit from your preferred dishes to how cold you like your drinks.” Oftentimes, that results in the staff getting tested by particularly critical patrons. “We have this one guy who is really hard to please – he likes his salmon well done but his mineral water shouldn’t be cold and we have to make sure the pepper grinder is on his table. Miss one of these items and you’re in hot water.”
As if on cue, a Middle Eastern-looking guest walks by and Dimaculangan waves at him. “Hi Frank!” Frank gives him a toothy grin, pats him on the back, and the two exchange brief pleasantries before the expat saunters jauntily towards his cronies.
“I’ll bet you guys maintain a database,” I surmise. “It must have several thousand entries.”
“Yeah, ever since Zuni opened seven years ago,” the General Manager confirms. “We note a guest’s name and a brief description along with whatever preferences or favorites that that particular guest has. Our staff has to commit as much information as possible to memory and they do regular refresher readings.”
The personal touch is an inviolable mantra that everyone lives by, from the most junior kitchen hand to the founder of the company. “Zuni is named after a Native American tribe found in New Mexico,” explains Kevin Prasad, the restaurant’s current owner. “It means graciousness and hospitality in their language. That’s why we don’t say ‘no’ as long as we can make our guests happy. We’re not a franchise. We treat our guests like family. Once a guest walks in, he or she has to feel like Zuni is a safe and relaxing sanctuary. Something very familiar, a home away from home where they will be served with the utmost care.”
How much care, you may ask? “We customize our menu for any occasion,” continues Prasad. “We accommodate all our guests’ requests.”
“One of our regulars comes in with his entire family – children, in-laws and grandkids,” elaborates Dimaculangan. “He has one grandchild who’s really fond of chicken tinola. Even though we don’t have it on our menu, we’ll whip it up for him.
The efforts do not go unnoticed. “We get international long distance calls from our more regular customers,” adds Executive Director Joy Contreras. “They tell us that they have friends or family coming and they want the red carpet treatment. Sometimes they head here straight from the airport, luggage and all.”
Aside from the homey living room atmosphere, what attracts them like cops to a donut shop are the culinary creations of Executive Chef Ding Lazona. I started with the Blue Swimmer Crab Cake Tower, a layered salad of crunchy crab patties with diced watermelon and avocado with a topping of alfalfa sprouts. The Pan Fried Foie Gras Salad came next, a tiny bushel of organic greens, arugula and a delicately roasted cherry tomato lightly sprinkled with creamy French vinaigrette with a generous slab of duck liver slathered in raspberry sauce. Heading into the main event was the Tenderloin Porcini, a just-the-right sized chunk of US Angus Beef tenderloin in porcini mushroom sauce with swirls of carrot puree and baked potato wedges (with the skin – the best part). Accompanying the steak was a plate of Prawns Served Two Ways, two pairs of tiger prawns prepared differently – one pair smothered in not-too-spicy-but-oh-so-lipsmacking-good sambal sauce and the other in a caramel-like, salty-sweet marinade that will have you popping those shrimp like potato chips. Pairing the meat and fish off was a delight with an easygoing Chilean red, a Carmen Pinot Noir 2012 with light hints of cherry and raisin and a sprightly finish. Alternatively, the bar mixed a Lychee Mojito, complete with plump lychees slowly suspended in a highball glass of light rum and tonic water and topped with fresh mint leaves.
Capping the end of the repast was a Chocolate Sampler, a tasteful selection of chocolate mousse served up in a scoop, a home-made chocolate bar dusted with dark chocolate, roasted marshmallow vanilla ice cream dusted with pistachio crumble, raspberry coulis and a dab of caramel sauce, and a flourless chocolate lava cake oozing with steaming chocolate sauce.
After all that, it isn’t hard to remember Zuni. And they’re sure to remember you.
Who says healthy food has to be boring? One of Zuni’s standout dishes happens to be one your doctor would certainly approve of – well to a certain extent, anyway. The Roasted Chilean Sea Bass, though humbly named, is actually a marvelous slice of fish so tender it would melt with but a steamy gaze. Topped with crispy slivers of its own skin, the sea bass lies atop a ricotta cheese-and-spinach stuffed ravioli resembling a glutinous green pancake. Heady truffle beurre blanc (French white butter) swirls ring the plate to add a classy zest to the velvety flesh of the sea bass.
If you fancy any of the paintings or photos on the wall, they’re all for sale – with one exception. One of the most striking is a dreamy yet vivid ceiling fresco of a bountiful table of bread, salad, wine and other fare. This is a piece by Ernie Garcia, a former silver screen star who once performed opposite the likes of luminaries such as Vilma Santos and headlined daring Philippine cinematic classics such as Virgin People. Desiring less attention from the media, Garcia sidestepped the limelight and poured much of his efforts into the visual arts (he was a UST architecture student once). He has since made quite a number of contributions to Zuni’s décor.