Zazios gives ordinary Italian 'The Boot'

Zazios is a take-off on the Italian word sazio, which in English translates to sated, or happily full.

This is exactly the feeling I had when I left metro Detroits recent addition to its smallish but exemplary list of top-class restaurants. And, so much more eloquent and concise than the Italian for wonderfully stuffed, which I also was, and which is, of course, in that flowery language meravigliosamente farcito.

From the moment one walks into the lobby of Zazios, at the corner of Woodward and Maple at the mouth of downtown Birmingham, any expectations of the mundane and ordinary are shattered on the spot, never to return. This is an Italian restaurant, but with those two words, the comparison to other restaurants that serve Italian cuisine ends.

Zazios is housed on the street-level of the Greenleaf Trust building, a financial institution chartered by the fabulously wealthy Kalamazoo-based Stryker family. As such, this is a restaurant concept that has been fully realized. No expense was withheld in implementing the ideas behind this exceptional fine dining establishment.

The catch-line used to describe the Zazios experience aptly expresses what they do here, At Zazios, the food is the entertainment!

A prominent feature of the stunning contemporary interior design by noted restaurant architect Jill Dyken of Eckert Wordell Design Co., is the spectacular kitchen-scape of Chefs Table, where stadium-style seating surrounds a cooking area to showcase Executive Chef Matt Schelligs preparation of a five-course meal in front of a live audience. If anyone has watched the Food Networks Emeril Live, and wished they could participate, then Chef Matts culinary performances in downtown Birmingham are the next best thing. The night I was there, the food, the wine pairings, the desserts, and the banter between the chef and his appreciative diners looked to be a night of indelible memories.

Other Foodies can take advantage of tabletop seating directly next to Zazios open kitchen, where the serious food enthusiasts can watch a world-class kitchen team create their evenings meal, from raw ingredients to the finished artistry of the final plated presentation. But, even the tables situated throughout the spacious dining rooms are wonderful anyway, because, as is sometimes the case, some couples are more likely to be focused on each other than on the way their special dinners will be put together. The ambience of Zazios has the air of special occasions and worthy time spent with noteworthy food.

But, my indelible memory was made at a private seating where I was personally served by Zazios affable general manager, Fadi Achour. Achour, originally from Beirut, has been involved in the management of sophisticated restaurants from Carmel, Calif. to the emirate of Dubai. My dinner was the same that any customer would receive. Fadi didnt put forth any special considerations for me, and thats just another thing that made this dinner so exceptional.

My appetizer was the Guazzetto, a soup-plate (bigger than the normal soup bowl), generously filled with Prince Edward Island mussels, steamed in a white wine broth with roasted garlic and leeks, and topped with julienned spicy soppressata. A trio of crostini brushed with a buttery olive oil accompanied the dish.

Im a mussels fan, and Ive tried many, at many places, including seafood restaurants in coastal cities where the catch-of-the-day, was more like the catch-of-the-minute. But, this heaping dish of goodness was so satisfying, that I can say without exaggeration, that this mussels arrangement was the best Ive ever had. And, the most unbelievable thing about this appetizer? Ten bucks. Thats all. Amazing.

After sopping up every drop of the mussel broth, Fadi brought me my entre the Scottaditti. This is one of the Zazios signature dishes a rack of grilled lamb chops, glazed with rosemary balsamic vinegar, sitting atop rosemary polenta, surrounded with sauted sweet red and yellow peppers and onion peperonata, with a housemade lamb polpette (similar in texture to a seared kafta, and closer in taste to a seasoned lamb tartare). A small pooling of basil pesto completed the plate.

For anyone that has ever ordered rack of lamb at a restaurant, this plate will be a revelation. Ive seen nothing but pale representations of this dish elsewhere. Done on the fire to perfection, this five-bone rack was the healthiest example of this entre Ive ever put a bite on. The polpette I cut with my fork. And while most peppers and onions slide off to the side uneaten with a lot of Italian dishes, these little pieces of sweetness just added to the succulence. Ill also note that the peppers had their skinned removed and there was not a hint of charring. So, so good.

The rosemary-balsamic glaze was so insanely good that I found myself gnawing at the bones after there was no more meat to be had. And, with the appetizer and just two of the bones eaten, I had to pack up the rest for later. Pure sin to have left anything behind.

Once again, the menu price for this dish is so reasonable at $32, that a comparable fine dining establishment for cost, quality and experience would be hard to find. And, the grandest thing about Zazios is that this, along with a few other entrees, is the highest price on their menu (other than their Chefs Table experience, which is a food adventure onto itself).

One other comment as to why I would encourage patronage of Zazios any restaurant that purposefully seeks out organic and natural foods from local places where I can shop too is a winner in my book. Zazios does just that. Good for the local economy, good for the plate, and good for the palate. And, better than good, for me.

By Paul Arlon

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