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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

fortunes,

successful businesses, and cities. It is evident in the steely-eyed

confidence of Steve Willis, who, along with wife Harriette, has

ventured

forth into the Princeton dining scene with their second restaurant,

quick on the heels of their new, cozy Harriette’s on Witherspoon

Street.

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

cascading

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

startling

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,

working

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

diversity.

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

Zanzibar

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

enthusiasm

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

waitstaff.

Its ambition will be a wonderful thing to watch.

— Richard Pawlak

Zanzibar, 235 Nassau Street, Princeton, 609-921-0075.

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

recommended;

no smoking; all cards.


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