Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Zinc Cafe: A Shining Star Behind the Orange Curtain

I was a little confused when I walked into Zinc Cafe on Saturday afternoon. Was this really the same place my mom and I had walked in and out of nearly three years ago? It looked the same, but something was different this time. This time, I actually wanted to eat at the health-conscious cafe on Pacific Coast Highway in Corona del Mar. This time, I found it exceedingly charming -- like a piece of Los Angeles had magically transported across the Orange Curtain.

Throughout the course of our quest to find new places to "do lunch," I have often whined to my mother that "there are no good lunch places in Newport/the OC." While we do have our list of usual suspects (Sage on the Coast, Quattro Cafe, Zov's), our area is seriously lacking those quaint, casual luncheries that are on every corner in Los Angeles. I would kill for an Urth Caffe or Little Next Door. I would maim puppies for a hot pressed panini. I would push little children into the street for an over-loaded chopped salad or bowl of butternut squash soup.

Well, maybe just the naughty ones.

Strolling into Zinc Cafe this weekend was like walking into a less-crowded hybrid of Joan's on Third and Le Pain Quotidien. The clean space, hardwood tables and attached marketplace were all reminiscent of my favorite casual eateries in LA. It was exactly what I'd been missing when I visited my parents and family in Orange County -- a neighborhood spot that offers quick counter service, fresh food and a pleasant ambiance. It's the type of establishment that I could spend hours in -- reading the newspaper at a corner table, sipping a cup of tea or chai, or just catching up with a good friend.

As my mom and I approached the counter to place our orders, I cursed myself for snubbing the cafe three years ago. At the time, I was put off by the mostly vegetarian menu and was still of the mindset that nothing good could come from food that did not contain anything that moo-ed, clucked or bahed. Yet, perusing the menu and board of daily specials on Saturday, I found myself torn between all the tantalizing options. The grilled cheese beckoned me to break my nonexistent diet, the egg salad sandwich promised to be satisfying on its La Brea Bakery whole wheat bread, and the special southwest salad sounded light and refreshing. After a few minutes of consultation with the enthusiastic girl behind the counter, I settled on a cup of their lentil soup of the day, and the asparagus sandwich, described as "an elegant open faced sandwich on toasted sourdough with pureed cauliflower, braised asparagus, white Cheddar cheese, a soft poached egg and toasted bread crumbs."

Soon after my mom and I were seated at our table for two, our cups of soup were placed before us. Steam rolled off the hearty stew, and as I lapped up the satisfying chunks of potato and pliant lentils, I almost wished I'd ordered a bowl instead of getting both the cup and the sandwich.

Almost. As soon as I tore my knife through the crust of the toasted bread of my sandwich, my previous "regrets" were immediately forgotten. The combination of the bitter roasted asparagus, sumptuous pureed cauliflower, restrained coating of melted cheese, tender poached egg, and bread crumbs was inspired -- I felt like I was dining at the bar at Osteria Mozza rather than a quiet corner of Orange County.

Almost. But, not really. In my jeans and and striped Splendid long-sleeve tee, I was way underdressed to be dining at an LA hot spot. And I was all the happier because of it.


Esi said...

Ha! It's so true, you have to "dress" to go to brunch here. This sandwich sounds really good!

Diana said...

It was really good! I want to try to recreate it at home -- I bet it would be pretty easy!

Heather said...

wow, this all looks so good! i love posts on cooler unfound restaurants. makes me wish i lived closer so i could check it out!!