(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in April, 2015.)
One of the many delights of living in Paris is the sprinkling of little local bistros where folks from the ‘hood gather for spirited talk, plentiful sips of wine and affordable, sustaining food, nothing precious. Downtown Palo Alto once had such a spot, L’Amie Donia, that was beloved and always packed. A decade after this restaurant’s perfect pommes frites and pan-roasted cod made their last appearance, a new French bistro has captured the fancy of Palo Altans seeking that comforting Gallic experience, opening last September on the very same block. Zola, named after the 19th century French writer, quickly attracted a happy crowd and zoomed to the top on social media rankings.
Zola might be trés French — young owner/chef Guillaume Bienaimé is a bi-lingual French-American — but it’s modern in its attention to seasonal ingredients and creative techniques. Classic dishes like a chicken and pork terrine are given a contemporary twist — in this case, house-made pickled mushrooms. Other starters are equally alluring, such as beef tartare with shaved black truffle and yummy fingerling potato “crisps,” and oh so en vogue roasted marrow bones served with an herb salad.
When Bienaimé wanders away from the classics — as he frequently does — the results are also scrumptious. He pairs barely seared slices of tombo tuna with grapefruit and lemon to cut the richness, accenting the meat with a touch of chile, avocado and hearts of palm.
Having run the kitchen during the final stretch at esteemed Marché in Menlo Park, Bienaimé has a packet of killer recipes to augment his whimsy, such as that restaurant’s fantastic ricotta gnocchi, crisp yet tender, here served in a brown butter sauce with a barely poached egg oozing on top.
The chef’s market-driven approach is particularly evident in a corner of the menu that’s easy to overlook given the other tempting categories available. But do check out his seven imaginative vegetable sides like roasted beets with citrus, feta and harissa pistachios, or outrageously divine mushrooms done like escargots.
Zola may be a bistro, but main courses are fresher, lighter and have more modern zip than the typical spot found in a Parisian arrondissement. Bienaimé is a whiz with seafood (sustainable, of course), with even delicate fish like flounder, snapper and cod emerging moist and flavorful. He does right by salmon as well, pan-roasting it and complementing it with carrot ginger mousseline and sesame brown butter.
Two eminently satisfying meat entrees are emerging as signature dishes. Served in a cute little iron pot, the chef’s short ribs “Bourguignon” feature slow-cooked protein redolent of wine and mirepoix that is fall-apart tender. Ever-popular pork belly here is paired with pork loin and roasted until achieving a crisp outside and unctuous middle. The apple, turnips, Brussels sprouts, maple and sage are perfect accompaniments.
Just as Bienaimé is progressive in his cooking, he’s also innovative when it comes to wine. He curates his own list, including interesting French and some California wines and doesn’t slap on the usual consistently high markup. Meanwhile, his corkage fee for older wines brought in by guests is just $10.
Like the other courses, desserts here combine the past with the present, such as outrageously good chocolate mousse that prettily layers the pudding with coffee gelée, cocoa cookie crumbles, whipped cream and flakes of salt. The nicely presented spice cake with cream cheese, ginger and pears is also a luscious mouthful.
The small, narrow interior is pure French bistro, with teal blue ceiling and wall, plank floors and bentwood chairs. Despite the addition of panels to lower noise, Zola’s decibels can be on the high side when the room is crowded — which is usually. This isn’t the spot for a quiet, romantic dinner. But the supply of happy patrons isn’t deterred, streaming into this convivial, new-fashioned bistro to get a little taste of Paris 5,600 miles away.
Zola, 565 Bryant St., Palo Alto, (650) 521-0651; http://www.zolapa.com
HOURS: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday until 10 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Starters: $7-15; entrees: $24-34; desserts: $6-8.