What happened when MBA student Hediye Batu from Turkey met engineer Alan Zakalik from Poland in Ann Arbor in 1994? They decided to become restaurateurs, of course.
When they opened Café Zola in the old Cracked Crab in 1996, it began as a breakfast and lunch spot known for its Gallic-accented crepes, omelets and quiches. They named their attractive bistro after the writer Émile Zola to call attention to their French kitchen. Over the past five years, however, they have expanded their offerings to include an eclectic dinner menu that roams the Mediterranean as far east as Batu's native Turkey and to other destinations as well.
With tasteful art for sale on the brick walls, large picture windows fronting the colorful pedestrian traffic on Washington Street, and, in season, a sizable outdoor patio, Café Zola is one of the more comfortable restaurants in Ann Arbor. And there is little that can make a diner more comfortable in that bustling university town than a Zingerman's bread basket, with the welcome accompaniment of a tray full of a nice variety of olives.
Welcome as well is the goat cheese Adriatica appetizer ($7) consisting of cheese, toasted hazelnuts, and a surprise ingredient, warm fig conserve. At first glance, another knockout appetizer, Portuguese steamed mussels Fado, appears overpriced at $15. But there are two-dozen of the little mollusks, awash in a white-wine sauce enlivened considerably by garlic and little bits of chorizo sausage. Those who, with good reason, are nervous about the incendiary nature of this dish can opt for the gentler mussels verde in white wine, butter, parsley and garlic.
Other firsts include antipasto, grilled shrimp with lemon cream and citrus chutney, and bruschetta Zola that serves as the foundation for Durham's Tracklements salmon, smoked in nearby Kerrytown, dressed with horseradish cream. Emile's arugula salad ($8), another possible starter, blends the greenery with grilled pear slices, glazed walnuts and Stilton, all of which are drizzled with a sherry and walnut-oil vinaigrette.
The most expensive entrée, at $29, a whole fish of the day baked in parchment, served with a unique coconut-cilantro basmati rice and zucchini, is well worth the investment. On one occasion, the large mild sea bass en papillote, floating contrapuntally on an assertive chili-garlic-soy sauce, was as moist and flaky as the best Greektown treatments.
Another assertive combination, shrimp Batu ($23) from Turkey, begins with perfectly sautéed gulf shrimp and surrounds them with a zesty chunky tomato-and-onion sauce, feta and kalamata olives. As with the appetizers, there are selections that are less jarring to the palate, such as a generous serving of sautéed salmon fillet ($21) with leeks and crème fraîche-enriched buerre blanc.
Among other mains are spaghetti and meatballs marinara, lamb chops a la Turque, flat-iron steak with garlicky chimichurri sauce from the Pampas, and ahi tuna in a sesame-seed crust with wasabi butter, sugar snap peas, and that crunchy coconut rice.
Obviously the last two dishes originate in lands quite distant from the Mediterranean.
The wine list, a thoughtful if somewhat pricey one, contains a handful of relatively obscure bottles in the high 20s to the middle 30s before it disappears into the stratosphere with an elegant "cellar reserve." In addition, when you see Zola's drink menu that flaunts 10 single-malt scotches, you know this is not the sort of place where you will find many Wolverine students dining without their parents in tow to pick up the bill.
This clearly is not their grandfather's Ann Arbor, once a culinary wasteland whose best eateries were two bare-tabled German restaurants, and whose city fathers prohibited liquor by the glass. But what could you expect when the main restaurant clientele was composed of university people, many of whom, including even administrators, could not have afforded to eat with any degree of regularity at a place like Café Zola?
Perhaps they could have afforded Zola's desserts ($6.75), which range from a warm chocolate-pudding cake, adorned with warm vanilla ice cream, Belgian chocolate ganache and whipped cream to an Italian torte featuring almond pound cake soaked in rum, covered with Amaretto mascarpone cream, and littered with caramelized almonds.
Throughout the menu, one finds comparable inventive amalgamations of ingredients, especially in the accoutrements that come with the mains.
Whenever I hear the name Zola, I immediately flash on his famous broadside in the Dreyfus case, "J'Accuse." Alas, I cannot play with that reference here because I find it difficult to accuse Café Zola owners Batu and Zakalik of anything except running a charming establishment. Their collective decisions, first to choose alternate career paths and then to expand their repertoire beyond breakfast and lunch fare, were well considered indeed.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to email@example.com.