Sunday, August 5, 2012

Creative Writing? Or Just Creative Marketing?

Zoë's Kitchen
999 East Basse Road
(in the Lincoln Heights shopping center, at Broadway)

One of my main gripes about chain restaurants is that they tend to homogenize their dishes to please the mythical Average Person. Seasonings become muted, piquancy dulls. They tend to add fat and salt because, on average, people like the taste of fat and salt. Artistry may have a place in a chain restaurant's test kitchen, but if a combination of flavours or techniques is too intricate for the mere functionaries who inhabit kitchens in the field, the artistic culinary creation will never appear on a menu. It's too expensive, not only to the corporate bottom line, but potentially to the restaurant's reputation (which amounts to the same thing): if John Doe gets a spicy dish at your location in Omaha (like that would ever happen), he's not going to have it when he visits the location in Pensacola. In fact, he's not going to visit the Pensacola store, because he'll have decided that he doesn't like your restaurant all that much. And he'll tell his friends, when they suggest your restaurant for an evening out, "Can we go somewhere else instead? Because I'm not wild about that place."

So when I went into Zoë's Kitchen, in its new location at Lincoln Heights, the first thing I saw was a list of locations on the back of the plastic menu card. Ah-Ha, I said to myself, This is a Chain Restaurant. (I'm quick, that way.) I decided, like a Soviet-era court or Fox News, to give it a fair, open, impartial and unbiased trial before condemning it.

Then I spotted the little text on the menu, repeated on the overhead board (and on the web site), that says that each location's menu is different. I thought, Hey, maybe this is a different kind of chain. So I had a nice meal: my wife and I split spinach roll-ups with grilled chicken and a pita pizza. She had a Greek salad, I had a side of roasted vegetables.

No city inspection yet.
The ambiance of the place is pleasant enough; sort of a mélange of 70s colouring with 80's techno-chic. The main decoration (other than a somewhat disturbing canvas juxtaposing "grill" and "braise" with "Davey Crockett") appeared to be, and possibly were, pictures done by elementary school children on the theme of "I Love Zoë's Kitchen." The dining room was clean, except for a few un-bused tables, and airy, with a high industrial-style ceiling and large windows forming two walls. Service was of the minimalist variety; the concept of Zoë's Kitchen was copied from Pei Wei, minus the mock Asian gilt, so there is no seedy order-taking at tables here: you stand in line, order at the counter, then put a placard bearing your number on your table so the porters can unite you with your food when it's ready. The employees are a cheerful lot of college-aged kids, glad to have a job in this economy and no doubt hoping it doesn't turn into a career. Prices are about right for the type of food on offer.

The veggie pita pizza was the best of our selections. It is, essentially, a personal-sized pizza formed by loading an assortment of vegetables onto a pita bread, spritzing it with oil and scattering it with cheese to hold everything together, and baking it until the bread was just solid enough to support the toppings. Not an over-large serving (that's a good thing, by the way), but certainly enough to satisfy a normal appetite. And the blend of textures — the crispiness of the crust, the creaminess of the mozzarella cheese, the smoothness of the softer vegetables, the resilience of the onions and mushrooms — and of flavours, from the caramelized onions to the feta cheese, were both excellent, making this a dish I would gladly have again.

The spinach roll-ups were less perfect, but still good. For starters, I wouldn't bother, next time, with the grilled chicken. It didn't add anything except volume to the dish, being somewhat on the bland side, and its texture was just slightly on the dry side. The tortilla in which the creations were wrapped was just a plain ol' flour tortilla, not as good as you would get at HEB, but okay. It was filled with a tasty sautéed spinach mixture, and those slices of chicken, and grilled on a sandwich press, I reckon, to seal it closed. It did indeed hold together, but I suspect the person attending the sandwich press was distracted at a crucial point by an attractive member of the opposite sex, or possibly by some water-cooler talk regarding the ongoing London Olympic Games, because the roll-ups were overcooked. Not burned, by any means, but well past the stage of "done." The dish is served with a tiny ramekin of sauce that is meant, according to the menu, to be salsa. My wife and I discussed whether it was that, or marinara sauce, or ketchup; that should give you some idea of its appeal.

The Greek salad was a fresh concoction with all the appropriate ingredients, again not over-large but a respectable size. The roasted vegetables I chose as a side consisted of broccoli grilled in oil with mushrooms and red onion. It was about a cup in volume, which I suppose is a standard amount, but even though it was oilier and saltier than I like my veggies to be, I felt like I should have gotten more of that. 

About that line on the menu, the one that made me think I was getting something innately local: what it actually says, in the on-line version (I forget what the exact words on the plastic version were), is not that each store has its own menu. It says, 

We invite you to open our menu. Explore our aromatic, satisfying lunch and dinner items and our convenient meal options. Since our stores, just like our customers, are unique in their own way, we suggest that you enter your zip code and go directly to what is sure to become your favorite, neighborhood Zoës Kitchen. 

That's not quite the same thing. And indeed, every store does not have its own menu. I compared the menus online for this location with those from New Orleans and Charlotte, North Carolina (locations chosen at random) and found them to be exactly the same: not one single dish is added or subtracted from one location's menu to the next. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that the cook in the kitchen in Old Metairie prepares a chicken pita pizza just like the Charlotte cook does ... maybe they throw a little filé on the bread. Maybe the Charlotte cook adds in a little, I don't know, hominy. But it sure looks to me like the concept of a chain of restaurants offering different tastes in different parts of the country is just that: a concept, not a real thing. This leads me to conclude that Zoë's Kitchen is a chain like all other chains, and the food served will in some way be dumbed down. 

That's too bad. 
Zoës Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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