PURPLE PROSE

Despite some changes for the worse, Zinnia still delights with its intrepid command of big flavors

When word got out that I was going to revisit Zinnia, the universal response was, "You mean that purple place? What's it like?" Seems everybody knows the lavender building at the corner of Big Bend and Shrewsbury in Webster Groves, but few have ventured in. Their loss. Inside is a serene dining room where irises bloom on white tablecloths, service flows with quiet efficiency and the food is as florid as the exterior suggests.

I kidnapped my pal Leigh-Cherie for the return expedition, and we ordered duck tacos forthwith. These weird, delicious savories remain at the top of my gourmet-junk-food list. Not so much tacos as a kind of open-faced duck pastry (tender meat and other goodies are stuffed into deep-fried wonton wrappers that crumble at first bite), they're impossible to eat without making a mess.

We also selected an Asian satay pizza and smoked salmon with maple-mustard glaze. The crisp pizza, unlike many cross-cultural specimens, was excellent: Bits of Asian-style sausage worked beautifully with cheese and tomato. The salmon, too, was gorgeous. Zinnia is one of those medium-rare-fish places (just say no!), but they were happy to cook mine a little longer, with gratifying results. Both the unusual glaze (sweet but not cloying) and a side of cabbage, apples and bacon exemplify Zinnia's intrepid command of big flavors.

"I hear the grilled-pear salad is divine!" Leigh-Cherie smirked, mocking one of my particular obsessions. The first time I darkened Zinnia's purple stoop, I was lucky to find this salad on the specials board, and I've been singing its praises as the world's finest ever since. But tonight it was significantly less spectacular than I remembered. The two paper-thin rounds of pear were mushy, and the Gorgonzola-phyllo puff had been replaced by twin boats of endive filled with neon-orange salmon caviar. Caviar? Combined with the strong flavors of blue cheese, spiced walnuts and balsamic vinaigrette, the weird, salty pungence of fish eggs was unsettling. Bring back the puff!

ZINNIA, 7491 Big Bend Blvd., 962 0572. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; dinner, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu. and 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 4:30-9 p.m. Sun.; closed Mon. Entrees: $14.50-$20.

 
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