Restaurant Review

Zane’s boasts new name, new menu, new quality of cuisine
by Richard Foss
Published July 17, 2008

I’m suspicious of rebranding, a practice which often seeks to inject life into a tired concept with a new coat of paint and a name change rather than a real rethink of what is being done and why. Every once in a while, though, somebody gets it right, and a place of color and character pops out like a butterfly metamorphosing from a caterpillar.

The caterpillar of Hermosa was Italy’s Little Kitchen, a restaurant that wasn’t actually bad but didn’t do anything that made my heart beat faster. It was always okay but never exciting, and when I saw a new sign on the building I figured that a new owner had taken the promising spot at the corner of Pier and Hermosa. The décor changed to something hipper, the menu sprouted steaks and sweet potato fries alongside pastas and salads. I was therefore surprised on my first visit when our server said the ownership and chef were the same, and I ratcheted down my expectations.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. Our meal started with good fresh onion-herb bread and a trio of dips – mild hummos, chopped olives, and sweet roasted peppers. We enjoyed the dips by themselves and in combination while scanning a menu that has everything from modestly priced burgers to high-end steaks and a wine list that has some very good bottles but is a bit pricey. After due consideration, we decided to start our meal with a wedge salad, minestrone soup, a Caesar, and an order of sweet potato fries. The minestrone was made with a vegetarian stock that emphasized the natural flavors of the produce, and if you like a light, fresh tasting soup rather than the cooked-down, heavily herbed version, this might be for you. The Caesar was average, the romaine and croutons crisp and cheese of good quality, but a bit too timid. Either the portion of dressing was insufficient or the dressing was too bland, but it didn’t make much of an impression. I like a Caesar that has plenty of egg and anchovy richness, so if you like a mild version then you might be delighted with this. We all enjoyed the sweet potato fries, which arrived crisp with a tasty remoulade sauce rather than the usual ketchup. Remoulade is a much more appropriate flavor, and we used every scrap of the fries to enjoy the combination.

The only starter that didn’t work was the wedge salad, which didn’t even pass on the basis of geometry – rather than the traditional quarter-head of iceberg topped with bacon crumbles, blue cheese dressing, and croutons, we were served a whole small head of lettuce with several slices of bacon and a large portion of bland dressing. The other starters were nicely calibrated in terms of portion, ample for one and nibbles for two, but this was both excessive and not easy to eat. The bacon wasn’t crisp enough to crumble and had to be cut or torn, and there was no room on the plate to cut and mix the ingredients without sending bits onto the tablecloth and into your lap. Deconstructing popular favorites can be a creative approach, but the unwedged wedge just didn’t work, and we left more than half on the plate.

We continued with grilled salmon, California pasta, and filet mignon. I had heard the steaks praised and decided to order a filet on a whim – it’s not usually my favorite cut of beef, but it was available in the smallest portion and I wasn’t in the mood for a large meal. Filets are often tender but flavorless, a blank canvas for sauces, but this one was fine as it came, nice smoky overtones complementing the lightly seasoned steak with herb butter. It was a simple pleasure, good quality meat properly cooked, and worth savoring. I had chosen sautéed mushrooms and herbed french fries from the list of accompaniments, and both were fitting companions.

The California pasta with chicken, tomato, and mushrooms in cream sauce looked so good as it was served to a neighboring table that two of my companions ordered it despite subtle suggestions that they should order different things so I could try more entrees. (My usual mind control techniques apparently failed.) I don’t remember whether this item had been on the menu in the restaurant’s previous incarnation, but if so it was a good call to hold it over. The spinach fettuccine was a perfect al dente, the sauce nicely fragrant of mushrooms, and we were pleased.

The salmon had the same virtues of the steak – a simple preparation that accented the merits of quality ingredients. It had been briefly grilled after being dusted with herbs, then set atop sautéed spinach, with roasted red potatoes on the side. It was a classic pairing, simple but effective, and we found it delightful. We matched our entrees with a bottle of Sanford Pinot Noir, a wine so versatile that it has been called the skeleton key to the human palate. It did the job nicely here, a tasty accompaniment to several varied dishes.

We considered an order of the freshly made churros, which a friend who recommended the restaurant had praised highly, but we were running short of room at the same time that a party-hearty group at the bar was getting so boisterous that we couldn’t hear each other, and we decided to leave. This brings up one disadvantage of Zane’s – the high-ceilinged room makes sound bounce around a lot, and as the evening goes on it can become very loud. As with any of the lounge-themed places in the South Bay, if you prefer quiet conversation, dine early.

That caveat aside, we enjoyed our meal at Zane’s, and would happily return. The atmosphere and cuisine were both lively, and if they can keep this level of food and service, then a location that has been home of several restaurants over the last decade may have a tenant that will settle in for a long spell.

Zane’s is at 1150 Hermosa Ave., corner of Pier. Open for dinner only, daily except Monday. Full bar, street parking, wheelchair access okay. Call 310-374-7488 for reservations. ER