Small Wonders 

At Zola, small plates are beautiful and vibrant'if not exactly cheap.

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I doubt that the initial vision included major demolition or the purchase of an elevator. My impression upon first hearing about Peter Cole and Jeff Polychronis’ notion to open a tapas-type bar atop their Squatters brewpub was that it was a bit of a lark'you know, a comfy spot where patrons could sip cheap Spanish wine and nibble on grilled shrimp wrapped in Serrano ham. Nothing fancy, just a Squatters annex of sorts to provide some variety to the well-established pub.

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So on my first visit to Zola'a “small plates” restaurant'I was a tad surprised at the splashiness of the space. There was nothing small about the high-energy layout and décor. Wall-to-wall salsa music sets the stage. Front-row seats at Zola’s lime green-topped counter/bar make for excellent viewing of the fast-paced open kitchen, while the lofty main dining room has a post-modern cafeteria feel to it. Each table comes equipped with a metal canister full of utensils and napkins; there’s also a stack of snack-size plates that allows guests to share the bounty of Zola’s menu easily.

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And what a menu it is. Although the paint was barely dry on my first trip to Zola, the menu was almost completely dialed in. I say “almost” because there were a couple of glitches'not the least of which was Zola’s signature dish, of Spanish paella. I believe my comment to Zola co-owner Peter Cole about his signature paella was something like, “You need to either fix this or take it off the menu.” It was severely disappointing. On my second visit, the paella had improved, but there were still issues'like the fact that none of the mussels perched atop my seafood paella had been cooked long enough to open, and the Spanish chorizo slices were overcooked and tough. Priced at $21 for a two-to-three person serving, that’s a problem.

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Well, on my most recent visit, the paella at Zola was very good. Thanks to a kitchen and management team that takes customer feedback very seriously, the paella problems at Zola largely have been rectified. I’d say the paella has gone from a 1.5 on a 10-point scale to around an 8 or 9. The Spanish bomba rice was cooked to perfection, with a nice crust on the bottom. Pan-sautéed shrimp and knife-scored squid were tender, just like the imported chorizo. Piquillo peppers added both flavorful zing as well as a bright red contrast to the saffron-colored rice'and I didn’t have to wrestle open my mussels. I still think the paella is a smidgeon overpriced, but I suppose someone has to pay for all those imported paella pans in which the dish is served.

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Small-plate dining is very “in” right now, and I’m glad. I almost inevitably prefer appetizers in restaurants to the entrées. Maybe that’s because they tend to be simpler or “cleaner,” or as Jeff Polychronis commented to me last week, “An entrée at a typical restaurant is an investment.” It’s sort of like being “all in” in poker. If you’re not completely happy with the big hunk o’ meat you ordered, for example, you’re pretty much screwed, since you’re not likely to order a second entrée. At a small-plates restaurant, however, if one of the five or six small plates ordered isn’t totally pleasing, dinner’s not a complete loss. Plus, the small plates setup is ideal for sharing with others.

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I’ve tasted dozens of Zola’s small plates, and I’ve yet to find one that wasn’t at least very good. Many are exceptional. One word of caution, however: Dining at a small-plates restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll wind up with a small bill. These babies add up quickly. Still, I’ve never felt like dining at Zola wasn’t worth every penny. The flavors there are certainly big.

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Marinated imported olives ($3) make sense as a starter, although it’s the sort of dish that seems like it should be free. A salad of local heirloom tomatoes ($5) spritzed with a lovely lavender vinaigrette and served with pea sprouts and local goat cheese was sensational and rivaled a small bowl of organic tomato and lobster gazpacho ($4) for mouth-pleasing freshness. The chefs at Zola are committed to using locally produced and organic ingredients whenever possible, and the customer is rewarded with full, wholesome flavors. For example, the Zola burger ($4) is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. Yet it’s so simple: a small patty of organic beef topped with aged Manchego cheese, organic arugula and basil aioli, served on a handball-size homemade bun. The burger is about the dimension of a White Castle “slider,” yet infinitely better'yes, even better than a WC slider! Just as irresistible are the mandolin-shaved herb “fries” ($5). A crispy pile of shaved organic russet potatoes fried with fresh sage and rosemary are topped with sea salt and served with aioli, and they’re entirely addictive. Zola also has a unique cocktail selection and wine list (see Grapevine, p. 36, for details).

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Other can’t-misses: stone oven-roasted piquillo peppers with fried garlic vinaigrette ($5); charbroiled “lollipop” lamb-chop ribs from Morgan Valley sprinkled with lavender salt and red quinoa tabbouleh ($12 and wickedly good); and crispy whole fried sardines from Monterey Bay with Meyer lemon and parsley ($10). For dessert, there’s a great cherry tart ($4), but my favorite is Valrhona chocolate pudding ($4) where rich, sweet chocolate contrasts so beautifully with cayenne-spiced almonds. Like so much of what I’ve eaten at Zola, it’s astonishingly pleasing'in a not-so-small way.

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ZOLA
nn145 W. Broadway
nn990-0652
nnLunch & dinner served daily

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