With the death of longtime Zuni Café chef-owner Judy Rodgers last week, there's been a lot of talk about her iconic wood-oven roast chicken and bread salad. It's a comforting, beautifully simple dish, as full of juiciness and balance as when she created it in 1988. But it's hardly the only signature of the restaurant.
As Rodgers herself told Michael Bauer over the years, it became nearly impossible to get new dishes onto the menu after a while because customers demanded the same favorites over and over again. Below are just a selection of those favorites, some of which made return appearances on the daily changing menu last week after long absences, and some of which have never left.
House-cured anchovies with celery, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Taggiasca olives
As her predecessor at Zuni Kathy Riley told us, Rodgers was "obsessed" with anchovies and curing her own in-house, and this very simple presentation -- pairing the tiny fish with sharp aged parmesan and a few slices of celery, topped with good olive oil -- has never left the menu. And with good reason: It's totally delicious, and plays on the same combination of umami-rich anchovy, olive oil, and salty cheese, that makes Caesar salad so good.
Rodgers perfected this pasta -- her version are a Florentine style, light as air, and you can see a demo of how they're made here, via Epicurious -- sometime in her first year at the restaurant, starting in 1987. While gnocchi are sometimes heavier and made with potato, these seriously melt on the tongue, and are served with different vegetables, mushrooms, or herbs depending on the season, typically in a light butter sauce.
Madeleine's Omelette with Mustard Croutons and Beaufort Cheese
This is one of those dishes, one that occupies several pages of the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, that had been a hit at the restaurant in 90s but had not made a repeat appearance on the menu in many years before last Tuesday night (an employee at the restaurant told us that a woman who hadn't worked in the kitchen in six years had to be called in to show the staff how to make it). If you're lucky enough to find it on the dinner or brunch menu, order it. As an appetizer, or whatever. It's a perfect, fluffy omelette stuffed with nutty cheese (it was Gruyere last week), and small croutons that have been soaked in dry vermouth and seasoned with mustard before baking. The flavors are reminiscent of really good Welsh rarebit, but the combination of textures elevates this dish to another plane.
The Zuni Burger
Only available at lunch and brunch, Rodgers' elegant and simple burger, seasoned with salt and served on focaccia, is still one of the best in the city. It comes with optional toppings of cheese or grilled onions, but the pickled onions it's served with might just be enough. Damn is it good.
You've probably heard about it, and sure, there are a million and one Caesar salads out there and it's hard to claim that one is so far superior to the rest. But Zuni is one of the places in this country that prides itself on making a paradigm of Caesar perfection, with just the right balance of acid, anchovy, oil, and cheese and the freshest hearts of romaine. If you've never had it, you need to.
Whole Roast Chicken for Two
This is the sort of chicken you'll never get bored of, and one that's nearly impossible to replicate at home without a wood-burning oven of your own, and a perfectly fresh, young chicken. It's served over seasonal greens and ripped hunks of oven-baked Acme bread, with currants and pine nuts, the chicken jus, a light vinaigrette, and the currants mingling to make the perfect sauce on the plate. It is certainly worth the hour wait, and you may as well spend that hour choosing carefully from their wine list, eating one of the starters above, and/or having some oysters.
Swiss Chard and Onion Panade
Another classic, greatest hit of the cookbook that may or may not make cold-weather appearances on the restaurant menu (and, along with Madeleine's omelette, it could be the pinacle of vegetarian cooking if you were to replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock... see the recipe here). It's a baked, savory bread pudding, heavy on the garlic and onion, and united by Gruyere and the richness of chicken stock.