Pearl in a Shell

Zinnia is a glowing example of great dining in an unlikely setting

May 22, 2002 at 4:00 am
When I was a high-school student in Panama City, Florida, kegs at weekend parties were always accompanied by twenty-pound mesh bags of pristine Gulf oysters. Not having grown up on the coast, I was wary of eating a formless blob that had to be transported in an Igloo cooler. But that first slider, with its clean salt-spray liquor, turned out to be merely a gateway to the hard stuff: mussels, clams, scallops and my latest fixation, conch ceviche.

More often than not, though, cooked shellfish are as chewy as mutton, and their delicate flinty flavor is carried away on a red tide of Heinz cocktail sauce. At Zinnia, which has been in business 13 years, chef David Guempel purchases seafood that's flown in daily. Mussels, his signature appetizer, are gently steamed open and steeped in a pale honey-dill dressing. Then the shellfish are well chilled, a simple technique that heightens their sweetness.

Guempel cooks with a straightforward sincerity and ease. He labels his restaurant's menu "eclectic American." With its focus on seafood and its incorporation of Southwestern and Pacific Rim flavors, the style could pass for California cuisine. Guempel does prepare meat, such as lamb shanks and veal sweetbreads, but it is not Zinnia's most appealing menu category.

Take Guempel's lamb tenderloin, which he substituted for chops one evening. The lamb rests on a pillow of mashed potatoes, and a fleshy fig-apple chutney is spooned over the meat. Garnished with a slender sprig of herbs or a curl of citrus zest, this handsome dish would seem complete. Instead, the plate is heaped with more green vegetables than a preschooler could be persuaded to choke down in a year. A chicken breast, fraught with the same broccoli angst, is encased in a barklike husk of olive tapenade. As food critic William Grimes observes, "We are living through a crust moment in cuisine." The coating insulates the chicken against moisture loss as it cooks. Golden-raisin risotto and a bright ring of tomato-fennel sauce help lighten up the dish, but the kalamata olives' flavor is so powerful that Guempel might as well have tarred and feathered the bird.

Let's not brake for a couple of speed bumps, though, when being at Zinnia feels like a joyride. Guempel even managed to wow us with tomato soup. He takes the unusual step of grilling the tomatoes before puréeing them, which gives the soup a salsalike texture and punctuates it with smoky bits of charred skin. Fresh vegetables also rev up Guempel's vichyssoise, a potato-leek soup that's served cold. He tosses fresh corn kernels into the milky potato base, cleverly mimicking a chilled corn chowder.

Spicy dishes containing corn, chiles and other traditional Mexican flavors have migrated to American cuisine through the Southwest. Consider Guempel's appealing preparation of salmon, a fish that's woefully overexposed on local menus. Eating salmon has become as tedious as listening to Geraldo Rivera's bombastic screeds from the front lines. Guempel resuscitates the fish by teaming it with Southwestern rice and a pepper-Jack-and-poblano quesadilla. He grills the fillet medium-rare, searing the surface but leaving the center rosy and translucent.

Guempel follows the principle that the best ingredients are local and seasonal. In addition to using produce from area farms, Guempel smokes his own Missouri trout. He stokes the fire with both hardwoods and fruitwoods, aiming for round smoky undertones in the fish. Like Portuguese salt cod, the fillets are caked with a frost of salt, but natural oils keep the trout supple. A Dijon-mustard dipping sauce studded with pecans stands up to the fish's smokiness.

Though the regular menu is exciting, check the chalkboard to see what market ingredients have caught the chef's fancy. Your waiter will describe these specials in detail. One of our servers, a sultry young man with lush tresses, was as expressionless as guests leaving a Botox party. He cast bored glances about the room as he intoned the list of off-menu dishes. Our other server was quite the opposite: engaged and efficient despite having too many tables in his station.

We were lucky enough to visit Zinnia during soft-shell-crab season, which occurs as crabs molt each spring. A crab's skin is edible for only a few days before it hardens into a new, larger carapace. Guempel flash-fries the crabs and plops them intact atop a mound of Asian slaw, as though he were serving really swank picnic food. The soft-shell crab was offered on both of our visits, which were spaced about three weeks apart. In fact, only the soup and one other special had changed. We'd like to see Guempel rotate the off-menu items more often to take advantage of berries, baby lettuces and other fruits and vegetables that make only brief appearances at the greenmarket.

In keeping with his Birkenstock approach to presentation, Guempel does not like persnickety pastries. His desserts are splayed out on their plates, as hulking and unselfconscious as plus-size women working on their tans. With their cascading fruit and billowing whipped cream, the confections fall just short of Shoney's. Good ingredients keep them from crossing over to the dark side. Guempel's towering berry shortcake, for instance, is made with a split-and-filled Southern baking-powder biscuit. A dollop of sour cream in the batter ensures a moist crumb. A fluffy lemon cheesecake has a snappy citrus spark that cuts through the rich cream cheese. And the ice-cream pie, made in-house, demands to stand cheek by jowl with a square of birthday cake. All desserts are $5 and can be paired with selected after-dinner drinks for $10. My dining companion took this offer literally: He doused his sticky-toffee pudding with a glass of late-harvest Riesling, creating something like what the English call a "tipsy parson."

A couple can order a bottle of wine, two appetizers, entrées and a couple of desserts for just over a hundred bucks at Zinnia. At comparable eateries in Clayton and in the Central West End, that sum might cover the food but not the wine. No doubt the restaurant's location, in a former Shell station, keeps fixed expenses in check.

Guempel and his partner, Larry Adams, have transformed the workaday shop into a dynamic space. Its high-energy mood reminds us of the old Blue Water Grill on Hampton Avenue. Lovely flower boxes outside are tangled with royal-purple petunias and coral geraniums. A backyard patio is bordered by a curving stone wall and a trickling fountain. In the dining room, a late add-on, the walls slant at quirky funhouse angles that parallel the oblique property line. Throughout the restaurant, funky paintings and sculptures have superseded oil drums and fan belts. The chef facetiously refers to the pieces as objets d'art, mustering a pan-European accent so affected it makes Madonna sound authentic by comparison. But far from being uppity, these works seem like ones the owners simply liked. We could say the same of Zinnia's delightful food.