Corrections or additions?
This review by Richard Pawlak was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
December 9, 1998. All rights reserved.
Dining Destination: Zanzibar
Ambition is a wonderful thing. It builds personal
successful businesses, and cities. It is evident in the steely-eyed
confidence of Steve Willis, who, along with wife Harriette, has
forth into the Princeton dining scene with their second restaurant,
quick on the heels of their new, cozy Harriette’s on Witherspoon
But this new venture, Zanzibar, is a different experience indeed.
The soaring space, as grand an entrance to a restaurant as we have
in these parts, with its dramatic stairway to the main dining room
above, is muted by warm shades of yellow and brown, cream fabric
over the inviting bar (moved here from the former Quilty’s restaurant
that became Harriette’s), and cascading down walls and windows. Quite
the first impression. Couples gaze at each other from the romantic
tables tucked into corners near the bar, others relax on sofas and
chairs in a casual area to the right of the entrance.
Clever lighting turns almost every table into a private space in the
cavernous main dining room, its brick walls awash in yellow, a
painting of electric blue puppies staring down all tables from a far
wall, the exposed ceiling as green as country club grass. An outdoor
terrace, visible from the floor-to-ceiling windows, promises chic
outdoor dining when the warm weather returns to town. Waitstaff,
in teams of two and three, are ever present, and friendly.
Dinner started with excellent sesame-coated bread and sweet butter,
as we sipped glasses of wine chosen from a decent selection of wines
by the glass. Manager David Rabinowitz walked us through some of the
wine choices, explaining that the list would be going through some
changes, to broaden the price range particularly, and to offer more
We hesitated to order the Roasted Chestnut Soup ($9), but before we
could decide, our waitress brought us demitasses of the deep amber
stuff, a gift from the kitchen. The soup was quite rich, studded with
nubbins of smoked duck, duck cracklings, and chestnut meat; a full
bowl would have ruined us for the meal to come. Traditional Caesar
salad ($7), lightly glossed with dressing was expert, and the Parmesan
toast a nice twist from the usual croutons. Spicy Shrimp and Polenta
($12) served up big, fresh, sweet shrimp atop grilled triangles of
spicy polenta, circled with a cilantro beurre blanc. I wanted to ask
for more of the fiery polenta, just to balance the big plump shrimp,
but I would eat the polenta plain any time. Other diners near us had
plates of the dramatic Organic Greens salad with dry-aged goat cheese
($7). It looked impressive.
Entrees we tried from the small menu included Pan-Seared Scallops
($28), arranged around a mound of smoked cabbage and shaved fennel,
utterly sweet and juicy, and I wished there were more than the four
big beauties on my plate. Grilled Veal Chop ($29) came napped with
a peppery jus, and laid against a pile of beautifully diced winter
vegetables. The Ravenswood Zinfandel I enjoyed with this dish made
for one of the best food-wine pairings I’ve had in a long time.
Executive chef Jaime Montes De Oca, who took over the reins at
when the original chef left for personal reasons, is a rising star
to watch for sure (and he visits the tables from time to time). He
has a talented pastry chef, Lida Rogers, and we indulged his
for her craft by trying several desserts (all at $8). Pumpkin Creme
Brulee was a glorious take on this classic, with pumpkin mascarpone
puree in a light layer over the custard, crowned with homemade pecan
sandies. Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse Tart was impossibly light,
not the dense, cold wedge I was expecting. Raspberry sorbet, served
in a delicate tuile cup, had a rich little dollop of Tahitian vanilla
gelato on top, a brilliant palate cleanser to end the meal.
Zanzibar may be this town’s most ambitious restaurant to date, and
one of its most expensive, with dinner easily approaching $90 for
two plus your choice of wine. It’s a smart mix of New York dazzle
and Princeton restraint, with an inventive new chef and caring
Its ambition will be a wonderful thing to watch.
— Richard Pawlak
Lunch, Tuesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday to
Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.;
Sunday, serving brunch/supper, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Reservations
no smoking; all cards.
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