Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Café Zinho: Red Flags Ignored and Paying the Price

            By night, I like to think of myself as a food critic of sorts, but by day, I teach.  And all good teachers know that the start of a good lesson begins by accessing your students’ prior knowledge on a subject.  So my friends, before you read this telling review, take a moment to watch this SNL skit, entitled Red Flag, compliments of Hulu.  I will be referencing the comedy genius of this Kristen Wiig video on occasion, so educate yourself.  (P.S. If you haven’t already seen this video, shame to you.)
I’m a strong believer in signs, or gut feelings as one might say.  That’s why I’m kicking myself for ignoring the blatant liver quiver I got when arriving at Café Zinho.  Upon opening the front door, I practically walked into a table of diners who were squeezed right next to the entrance.  My husband and I awkwardly plastered ourselves against the door in hopes of seeing a staff member to check us in for our 7:30 pm reservations.  An older woman came out from the kitchen and greeted us promptly, asking for our name.  I couldn’t wait to sit down and move out of the way.  Unfortunately, that didn’t go as smoothly as I would’ve hoped.  The woman asked for my husband’s name again and read aloud names that were not ours.  She then asked when we had called and whom we had spoken to when we made our reservations, as if that would make our name appear on the list.  What it boiled down to, however, was that the gentleman who took my husband’s phone call earlier in the week had not recorded it in the book.  The hostess informed us, speaking over a table of guests, that the gentleman we spoke to was in his car when we called so he most likely forgot to write our name down.  The woman then looked at us as if the oversight was out of her hands.  It was our problem, not hers.  (“Red flag,” cue whisper voice.) 
Just as we were about to turn for the door, an older couple got up from their table, informing us that they were on their way out and insisted we take their seats.  The hostess (who we later discovered was the owner as well) checked the book to see if the table in question was reserved.  It was not, so just like that she changed her face and greeted us with a smile as if the previous five minutes of rudeness had never happened.  She asked if we could wait a moment while she changed the table linens.  As we leaned against the door, I scanned the room of patrons for the first time.  That’s when I realized that the average age of diners was easily 65+.  (“Red flag,” more whispering.)  Not to say that an older crowd indicates poor food quality, but my hopes of modern fare were quickly diminishing. 
With a feeling of unease, we sat down at the tiny table, which was wobbly and placed against the hostess/beverage area desk.  After reviewing the menu, I started to feel a bit better.  The menu was small and featured some classic Portuguese dishes.  Several menu items sounded quite delicious and I began wondering how I would choose just one.  We decided to begin with the Chicken Liver appetizer.  It came out promptly and looked as scrumptious as it sounded.  The livers were sautéed to perfection (crispy on the outside and velvety on the inside) and dressed with an apple cider sauce.  They were nicely accompanied with a healthy handful of arugula, and topped with apple slaw and bacon chunks.  When you put a taste of each ingredient on your fork, it was a beautiful balance of flavors and textures.  Better yet, we were served a basket of warm corn meal based bread.  I used some bits of the delightful dough to sop up some of the remaining sauce.  It was that good! 

Chicken Liver Appetizer
Mariscada...looks deceivingly good. 
The hard rubbery foot that needed to be removed wasn't the deal breaker...it was the grit in my mouth.
If this wasn't a bowl of sea water, it would've been lovely to have a side of rice.
Strip Steak?  Salisbury Steak? I don't know either.

Feeling quite relieved and more relaxed after our first course, we sat back and enjoyed a glass of our favorite wine (BYOB).  As we waited for our entrees to arrive, however, that nagging feeling of foreshadowed dread started creeping back.  As mentioned, our table was literally next to a staff area.  When my husband and I weren’t chatting, we began overhearing unpleasant conversations from the wait staff.  “That’s not my table, it’s yours.”  “Wait, which bottle of wine goes to that table?”  “I tried their leftover wine.  It was really gross.” (“Red flag.”)  As I looked at my husband, I noticed his face was contorted as well.  Was he hearing this too?  Perhaps, but he was looking at the line of dirt and dust that was crusted on the desk we were seated against.  Considering this is an area that diners are seated next to and countless dishes are placed on, it was a serious oversight in the cleaning department.  Then I heard it… “Baby, you’re a firework. Come on show ‘em what your worth.”  Yes, it’s true; they were playing Katy Perry at a Portuguese restaurant.  (“RED FLAG!”)  But it was too late…our entrees were already en route to our table.
Our waiter, who we hadn’t seen since he’d brought our appetizer, clumsily placed my Mariscada (shellfish stew) in front of me.  My eyes widened as I noticed the size and variety of shellfish in my bowl.  I wish that bigger always meant better ladies, but after the first bite, I knew I was going home unsatisfied.   For starters, my scallops were served with their feet still attached.  Not the end of the world though, no that came when I bit into one.  Instantly, I felt the grit between my teeth.  These beautiful scallops were absolute rubbish.  They were nothing more than a salty, sandy sponge.  The shrimp and mussels were equally distasteful as they were completely overcooked.  You could have easily bounced those shrimp.  The only part of the dish worth eating was the few clams they’d thrown in.  They were actually tender, although still on the salty side.  After removing the shellfish, what was left was approximately two full cups of sodium packed broth.  Having had Mariscada at other Portuguese/Brazilian eateries, I realized that they hadn’t given me a side of rice to soak up the stock.  Considering I would’ve needed to drink a gallon of water if I had actually consumed the juice, I’ll consider that a positive in hindsight. 
My husband ordered the Strip Steak with Syrah and Mascarpone sauce.  Heavens to Betsy, I swear at first glance I thought they had brought him a Salisbury steak.  His steak was bathed in a puddle that tasted like coagulated beef bullion.  It was so underwhelming that I wanted to march back in the kitchen and demand to see proof they even had Syrah or mascarpone on hand.  It was served with a few pieces of boiled veggies including two little fingerling potatoes.  Perhaps they had boiled my husband's steak in the same pot. 
We were at the bottom of our wine bottle and sitting amongst an array of dirty dishes for over twenty minutes before we could get our inattentive waiter to visit our table.  Perhaps the wait staff is trained to stay away from the diners after they get their food to reduce the number of dishes sent back to the kitchen.  They figure you’ll cave and eat it out of shear hunger.  When he finally came over, he asked if we needed anything else.  We responded with a “no” and requested our check.  Do you think he cleared any of our dishes in his retreat?  Spoiler alert: no.  When he brought us our check, we were sitting in our coats ready to find something else to eat.  The total of our bill was pennies under the $70 mark.  That was the last straw, the final slap in my salty, dry mouth. 
Café Zinho was an absolute disappointment.  The only positives of the evening were the appetizer and the bottle of wine we brought ourselves.  Keep this lesson in mind, friends, heed the red flags or pay the consequence. 

I give Café Zinho: 1/5 forks 

Will I return?  No.  There are countless ethnic eateries we can patron.  This will not be one of them.

Café Zinho
238 Spahr St
Pittsburgh, PA 15232
(412) 363-1500

"Firework" as written by Katy Perry, Mikkel Eriksen, Tor Erik Hermansen, Sandy Julien Wilhelm, Ester Dean
Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., EMI Music Publishing