Ithaca restaurateur Lex Chutintaramond has a well-established pattern: he opens a restaurant and sells it to a key employee and then moves on to a new venture. He opened Thai Cuisine in 1989, Just A Taste in 1990, Madeline’s in 1997, and ZaZa’s Cucina in 2002. All four restaurants are now operating with different owners.
In the case of ZaZa’s, Lex sold the establishment to Curtis Radcliffe in September 2015. Curtis had been the executive chef from 2007-2012 and continues in that capacity. Jamie Jensen, who joined Curtis as co-owner in April, had been general manager from 2011-2014 and now serves as the “front of the house manager” and wine buyer.
Jamie and Curtis have made many changes since they became owners. The most obvious is the menu, where the total numbers of selections has been reduced from about 60 different options to just over three dozen, providing an opportunity for the cooks to concentrate on less items and make each one better than if they had to prepare a wide variety of dishes from a myriad of ingredients.
To help make up for the loss of about 24 selections and to take advantage of seasonal availabilities, there are daily specials. Soups don’t appear on the menu but one is prepared every day and there is usually an appetizer or antipasti and an entrée special. On a recent visit I ordered the appetizer special — a house cured-salmon on toast — similar to a bruschetta. The salmon was cured in the kitchen with a dry rub of sugar, salt, herbs and spices, flavors the fish absorbs over a few days or weeks. Prepared differently than a typical smoked salmon, the flavor isn’t masked, highlighting the high quality of the fish. An appetizer I particularly like is Brussels sprouts, which are halved and cooked with a tasty seasoning of bacon, sherry and pine nuts.The entrée special I selected the same evening was a half game hen. Unlike many hens, it had plenty of meat, and was served on a bed of orzo. It was delicious.
A less obvious change made by the owners is the large, industrial pasta machine Curtis imported from Italy enabling him to make all the pasta from scratch which he does every day. Curtis has reached out to a local farm for eggs and uses 30-dozen each week just to prepare the pasta. Fourteen of the 38 menu items are in the Fresh Pasta section and include a variety of ingredients including lobster, shrimp, clams, olives, and a short rib with root vegetables. The pasta dishes range from $17-22, and the portions are generous.
There are three parmesan entrees: veal, chicken and eggplant and the combination of melted cheeses used for toppings is creamy and delicious. The prices, $18-22, are all the more reasonable because the portions are huge — easily enough for the next day’s lunch. I have ordered chicken parmesan many times and the meat has never been dried out from overcooking.
The tasty bread that accompanies the meal is house made Foccacia, created from their own sourdough starter and the accompanying olive oil infusion includes lemon zest, fresh basil and a touch of garlic.
A dessert menu offers a standard selection with most priced at $7-8.
A new bar menu has recently been introduced, featuring nine lighter items served in smaller portions at a lower cost than the main menu. I can recommend the meatball (2) sliders which are housemade and served on a small bun with tomato jam and a black pepper aioli, at a fairly modest $12.
There is a good selection of fairly priced wines available. Although most are Italian there are also selections from several other countries and from the Finger Lakes and California. If you’re in the mood for a mixed drink, you’ll have no problem finding a house cocktail that should please you.
Not all of the changes originate in the kitchen. In the dining room the works of a local artist now hang on the walls and are changed every two months and a guitar player strums unobtrusively every Wednesday night. Each time the pictures are changed there’s a Gallery Night where the new artist explains his/her creations, complimentary hors d’oeuvres are served, and a new and creative cocktail is featured.
We are fortunate to have a large selection of restaurants in the greater Ithaca area and ZaZa’s is already one of the best. With the enthusiasm and expertise of the new co-owners, I’m sure it will get even better. •
Ithaca Times restaurant reviews are based on unannounced, anonymous visits. Reviews can be found at ithaca.com/dining