Casual sophistication

The modern desire for quality and style, coupled with comfort and practicality, manifests in several ways. From the introduction of spandex and Lycra in women’s business attire to the proliferation of khakis and button-down blue shirts in menswear, the trend toward casual sophistication expresses us perfectly. Nowhere are we more at home than in the middle—between black tie and blue jeans, highbrow and lowbrow, haute culture and pop culture.

In food, as in fashion, we want and expect comfort, style and familiarity, with just a hint of whimsy—all at a reasonable price. In the past decade, casual sophistication has meant California cuisine, often with an Italian flair: calamari, polenta, pesto and aged balsamic vinegar all ring familiar bells. Occasionally, you’ll find a hint of the American Southwest or a smattering of Pacific Rim influence, too.

Zinfandel Grille offers a Mediterranean version of California cuisine that leans toward Italy. The Italian connection is not unexpected. The restaurant began life as Paragary’s Bar and Oven; its name was changed to Zinfandel Grille by owner John Hankard, who selected the name in homage to California’s distinctive and famous varietal, the Zinfandel grape.

At the Fair Oaks location, reviewed here (there’s also a Folsom location), the casual, sophisticated diner appears to be Caucasian, in the upper echelons of the middle class and with an average age in the early 40s. The context, however, is varied. Men dine alone, and women dine with other women; married couples, dating couples and couples with children of the behaving age—they all dine here.

And why shouldn’t they? There’s nothing terribly exclusive or hip about the Grille. The background jazz was lively, with sporadic edgy undertones. The drop-down lights were ruffled, translucent ceramic, resembling inverted ice cream cones. The restaurant was doing well on a Thursday night—looking like it would get at least two full turns of every table.

Our waiter sported a button-down blue shirt and a long apron. He described the specials in detail and then drew our attention to the logo with the snazzy vine-decorated “Z.” We got down to business and ordered the featured beer of the month, a Spaten, along with a hearty glass of Sangiovese from Atlas Peak Winery in the Napa Valley to match the heartiness of our appetites.

Because the restaurant emphasizes seasonality, we started with heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. The yellow and red cross-sections of the heirlooms were large and beautiful. The sweet juices of tomato flesh were accented by strands of basil chiffonade, sweet balsamic syrup and drizzles of extra-virgin olive oil. The fresh mozzarella was delicate and full of milky flavor, competing with the tomatoes for our hungry attention.

Entrees arrived soon afterward: a grilled flatiron steak topped with a balsamic demi-glace, and a calzone from the wood-fired pizza oven. The steak was a medium-sized cut, nicely charred on the outside and cooked to a flawless medium rare on the inside. The flavor was almost singularly of meat—no marinades, no rubs. Only the sweet, beet-red demi-glace offered a shy complement to the beef. Plain mashed potatoes and a smallish tomato stuffed with sparing amounts of mild blue cheese rounded out the steak dinner. Though the mashed potatoes were a welcome digression from the meaty texture of the beef, the stuffed tomato lacked character, as though it were an afterthought to the meal.

The calzone—an entrée for which one might have high hopes, given the prominence of the Grille’s wood-fired oven—eclipsed most of a large white plate with its impressive size and volume. An incision down the middle released the rich aromas of cheese and pork product, and it also released the air pockets, leaving the calzone more properly deflated. A peek inside the crusty envelope revealed dabs of goat cheese, healthy amounts of fontina and prosciutto, caramelized onions and an artichoke heart or two. Attractive in appearance and aroma, the calzone nevertheless fell flat. The prosciutto and artichoke hearts both were a tougher chew than necessary, and the ingredients were vexingly distributed, with the fontina clumping at one end, the caramelized onions at the other. Only a few bites captured the calzone as it was meant to be eaten—with every ingredient playing a role. The biggest flaw was overly bready crust, which filled the stomach long before the appetite was sated.

As the floor grew busier, our waiter grew more inattentive. But it didn’t matter because an endless parade of young men came by to clear our plates, refill our waters and get our to-go boxes. We skipped dessert, our distended bellies full of carbohydrates, proteins and quantities of fat. Suddenly, the fashion trends of the ’90s all made sense—the spandex, the Lycra, the fabrics that expand—even the oversized cars. I can see it now: “Muumuu—by Ralph Lauren. For the ultimate casual sophisticate.”