Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Dinner @ Zare at Fly Trap

Update Review, May 2016

Friday.  3pm.  Ojan sends me a message saying, "Hey, I have a group of 10 people for dinner tonight.  Do you have any thoughts where we can go near the office?"  I kinda laughed.  His default is to go to Osha Thai.  Osha is fine, but, I knew I could do better.  (And, if I was invited, I wanted to do better!)

It took me only about 10 seconds to think of Fly Trap.  It had been several years since my last in-person visit, but I knew it was the perfect answer ... if they could fit a decent sized group, last minute, on a Friday.  I called the restaurant, and literally, by 3:02pm, I had our reservation for 10 people, just a few hours later, secured.  Amazingly, it was Hoss, the Chef and owner himself, who answered the call and welcomed me warmly.  I couldn't believe how well this worked out.  The only downside?  He told me, unprompted, that he had no foie gras in the house that night.  Heh.  Next time, he said I needed to give more notice, which, I totally would, if I had even known I was going to be arranging a last minute dinner!

Hoss set us up in the side room so it would be more quiet.  There were 2 other small tables set in that area, but they joined mid-way through the night, so it was almost like having a private room.  I thought I got a photo of the room, but, alas, I don't seem to have.  It is a class but casual space, with wooden tables, real candles on the tables, decorative lamps and mirrors on the walls, and a big curtain behind our table that the wait staff would magically appear through.

Everyone enjoyed the meal, and for most, any sort of Persian cuisine or influence was new to them, which tends to be true with most folks we bring there.  I love how the menu is easily approachable, so, although unfamiliar, they were excited about it.  Amusingly, one member of our group actually went just the night before (which I didn't know when I suggested going!), but he enthusiastically agreed to go back again.  Every plate, at every course, was easily cleared, so, I think everyone was quite satisfied.

Service was friendly, the server even addressed me by name, a cute touch.  Fresh cocktails and other drinks were offered whenever a glass went empty, but not in a pushy way.  We felt very taken care of.  The only stumble was while we were still eating our appetizers, one server came and tried to clear away the plates, even though they still had plenty of food on them, and no one really looked done.  It was a bit odd, particularly when someone reached to grab the last piece of naan as he tried to take the plate away, saying, "wait, I'll eat that ..." and then still proceeded to try to take the next plate with plenty of food on it too.  We still had a good 10-15 minutes before our main dishes came, so it wasn't like the server was trying to make way for another course.  Not really sure what was going on there.  But, overall, very good, comfortable, service and a solid choice, particularly impressive for a last minute large group.


Drink Menu.
I always love the cocktail menu at Fly Trap, and this time was no exception.

The menu has great variety, including classics with slight twists (like a martini with house made pickles), ones with Persian ingredient inspiration (a pomegranate daiquiri with pistachio salt), and showcases a large assortment of liqueurs.  Everyone at my table was eager to order cocktails to start, and everyone enjoyed their choices.

The beer and wine by the glass selection is good too.  For my second drink, I opted for a glass of Zinfandel, and it was decent, light, drinkable.
Gold Digger. $12.
"Armagnac, amaro nonino, douglas fir, cranberry shrub."

The Gold Digger caught my eye.  Not because of the name, but, I like armagnac, and this sounded a little more unique than my standard choice of a bourbon or whiskey based cocktail.  Plus, I was interested to see how the cranberry and douglas fir made their appearance.

It was a good drink, not too alcoholic tasting, nicely balanced.  I didn't really taste the cranberry shrub, there was no real tartness or fruitiness, but I imagine it was there adding to that balance.  I did taste the armagnac on the finish, which was quite delightful.  Inside was a citrus peel.

Overall, good, and it was a lovely drink to settle into the meal with.


Dinner Menu.
The menu changed since my last visit, in format and in content.  Most Fly Trap classics were still there, like the Trio of Hummus, Bone Marrow, and Pistachio Meatballs appetizers, and the Lamb Burger, but there were also some seasonal changes and new additions.  But, the primary change was the layout, now broken into four categories: "Garden", "Barn & Yard", "Water" and "Sides".  As you might have guessed, "Garden" was vegetarian options, "Barn & Yard" was meat, and "Water" was seafood, but within each section were both appetizers and main dishes.  Main dishes seemed to be contained within call out boxes, and appetizers were not.  It took most of my party a good 10 minutes to figure this out.  They all thought that the Garden section was appetizers, the Barn & Yard was mains, and didn't even see the Water section.  A bit confusing.

Anyway, I ordered a few appetizers for the table, including the easily sharable dips and classic meatballs, and then each person ordered their own main dish.  Almost the entire table ordered the burger or the braised lamb.
Appetizer: Trio of Hummus. $12.
"Roasted squash, pine nut pesto, jalapeño black bean, crispy lavash."

Fly Trap often has a trio of hummus on the menu, and the varieties change out with the seasons.  I'm not really a hummus fan, because I don't really like chickpeas or beans, but I'm always interested to try the hummus trio at Fly Trap, because it usually isn't standard hummus, and really, I think of it just as dips or spreads for bread, and those are something I do like.  Last time I ordered takeout, the trio was chickpea, roasted squash, and beet.  This time, we again had a roasted squash version, but also  pine nut pesto and jalapeño black bean versions.

I tried a bite of each, but, there was something in the flavor of the black bean one that I really didn't like.  Feta maybe?  I'm not sure.  I quickly moved on to the next appetizer, and left this for the others.

The lavash served on the side was good, super crispy.
Appetizer: Grilled Spiced Naan & Fava Bean Spread. $14.
"Soft ricotta, aged balsamic, asparagus, cumin, chermoula, parmesan."

This was a new menu item for me, and I think it replaced my old favorite sourdough bread & lavash, with feta-walnut spread and caspian tapenade, that I literally used to get every single visit.  I loved those spreads.

I didn't love this quite as much as the old spreads, but, it was a very good dish, although perhaps a bit too involved.

The fava bean spread occupied much of the plate.  It was fresh and light, a great way to showcase the in-season beans.  I believe the chermoula was in here.

The ricotta was fabulous, soft, and very fresh tasting, I think housemade.  It was drizzled lightly with aged balsamic and sprinkled with salt.  The texture was lovely and the flavors just popped.  I could eat this easily by the spoonful, but of course, it was best when spread on the naan with some fava bean spread too.

Speaking of the naan, this was quite nice too.  Small, bite sized triangles, warm and grilled.  They had a deep, smokey grilled flavor that I adored.

A bit strange was the asparagus.  I like asparagus, and it was fresh, crisp, and in season, but I couldn't quite figure out why it was part of the dish.  The light mustard vinaigrette drizzled over the asparagus was tasty.  The dish was also garnished with some kind of fresh sprouts.  These too seemed a bit out of place, just a couple too many elements on the plate.  Not that they were bad, but, I just wasn't sure why they were needed.

Overall, this was good.  Ojan really liked it, and he easily polished off both plates.  I really appreciated the grilled flavor to the bread and the freshness to the ricotta, plus, the excellent salt level.  But I still miss my old spreads.
Appetizer:  Pistachio Meatballs. $10.
"Beef, red harissa, honey, pomegranate."

The final appetizer I ordered for the group was the signature meatballs.  I thought I remembered these being lamb before, so when the server asked if we wanted one for everyone (I think they normally come 3 to an order), I said no, that we only wanted 9 for our group of 10, since I didn't want one.

I didn't try a bite, which was fine with me, but, I did plan to at least soak up some of the yummy sauce with the bread from the other appetizers.  Unfortunately, the plate was cleared away as soon as the meatballs were taken, no sauce plate left around for me.  Doh.

So, I have nothing really to say here, besides that everyone liked them, and I thought it was thoughtful that the server asked if we wanted one for everyone, rather than just assuming we'd want multiples of the standard order size.
Asparagus & Watercress Salad. $14.
"Jicama, caramelized onion, herbs, sumac, and yogurt dressing."

We went to Fly Trap after several nights in a row of eating out, and eating heavy food.  I really just wanted something light, so, I opted for the Asparagus & Watercress salad as my main.  If I'd been up for something larger, I certainly would have gone for the linquine with scallops and prawns, with a fascinating sounding mix of caramelized fennel, leeks, salsa verde, arugula, pink peppercorn, and breadcrumbs mixed in.  I wished someone else ordered it so I could try it, but alas, they were all eyeing the meat dishes.

Anything, this order was definitely not a normal move for me, since, I don't really order salads, and I usually like the cheesy, creamy, heavy stuff, but I really just was looking for something with a lighter touch.  Plus ... I remembered how much I loved some Fly Trap salads in the past, like the similar sounding "Spring salad with asparagus, apple, jicama, caramelized shallots, marscapone, yogurt citrus dressing" that I enjoyed last time for take out, or the absolutely incredible "Smoked trout, cucumber, seaweed, tobiko, dill salad" I had when I dined in.

As I said, this was pretty similar to the "Spring Salad" that I had before, although, adjusted for the season.  The base was watercress, asparagus, and batons of jicama, all fresh, vibrant, and crisp.  These elements were all good, but, not particularly noteworthy.  What was noteworthy however was the caramelized red onion.  I loved the onion, just like I loved the caramelized shallots in the previous version.

Squash blossoms were an unexpected touch, and they added a pop of color and an interesting element to eat.  These replaced the edible flowers from previous versions.  There was also a generous amount of sumac all over, which looked excessive, but really was just right.

The only thing I didn't really care for was the yogurt dressing.  It was just a bit too tart, a bit too much like yogurt for me.  I liked it better in previous versions where it was balanced by mascarpone.  This just felt, uh, too healthy?  I know I wanted something light and fresh, and this certainly was those things, but, the net result was that it wasn't actually quite something I wanted.  Oops.

Still, I'd continue to try the salads at Fly Trap, as they are always interesting, flavorful, and creative.
Main: Zare's Lamb Burger. $21.
"French fries, little gem lettuce, bell pepper, feta, house-cured pickle, saffron aioli."

Ojan, and several others, all opted for the burger.  Since I don't like lamb, I had zero intention of trying it, but ... the burger patty looked really quite good, so, I snuck a bite.  The bun was seeded, nicely toasted.  The burger was quite juicy.  But, um, yes, it tasted like lamb.  I did not like.

The most interesting thing about this burger to me was the salad on the side, a mix of lettuce, chopped bell pepper, and crumbled feta.  Since there was nothing on the burger, no lettuce, no tomato, no cheese, just, bun and burger, I'm pretty sure this was supposed to be used as a garnish on the burger.  But really, it was a mini salad.  Some in the group piled it onto their burgers, others just ate it as a salad, others did a bit of both.  Interesting way to serve burger toppings.

Also on the plate was a pickle spear.  I quickly grabbed that from Ojan, as I love pickles.  But, I did not love this pickle.  It was a bit soft, and clearly a fresh pickle, not very tart, not dill.  I gave it back just as quickly.  Ojan also took a single bite and discarded it, a strong sign from him, also a pickle lover.  Maybe this is just how Perisan pickles are?

The final element was the fries, thin, crispy fries.  They were fine, fairly unremarkable, classic thin fries.  Served alongside, and I guess for the burger too, was ketchup and saffron aioli.  I appreciated the creamy aioli.

Anyway, this isn't something I'd ever order, but the burger eaters seemed happy enough, and I was happy to steal a few fries, dunked in tons of aioli of course.


Dessert Menu.
The dessert menu had 6 different items.  Several folks were not interested in dessert, and most others wanted to order their own dishes, so, it was each person for themselves for dessert, no group ordering or sharing.

We got 7 desserts total, picking all but the faloodeh, and doubling up on two others.  Every dessert plate was cleared, instantly.  No drop of dessert remained a mere ... 4 minutes after the plates were placed in front of us.  And no, it wasn't because people were starving.  They were devoured because, well, everyone really liked what they ordered.
Goat Cheesecake. $9.
"Candied almond, eggplant preserves."

Always a classic at Fly Trap, the goat cheesecake.  Two members of my group ordered it.

You may recall that I really don't like goat cheese, and I've tried this before.  I didn't take a bite this time, since I knew I wouldn't like it, and, well, they devoured it before I really had a chance to reconsider.  A bit hit for those who ordered it, although they did say it was a pretty rich dessert.
Baklava. $9.
"Persian cream, rose preserves."

Instead I went for the baklava, another item that is a classic on the menu, and one I had for takeout once.

Again it was a deconstructed creation, not your standard bar form of baklava.  Crispy phyllo dough, layered with cream and sweet rose preserves, garnished with plenty of pistachio.

I again liked the crispy layer, and found it quite fun to eat.  The Persian cream was delicious, but I felt the ratio of cream to phyllo was a bit off.  I had far more phyllo dough than cream to dunk it in.  The crispy, caramelized phyllo was good, but, I wanted something more with it, and too quickly ran out of cream.

The rose preserves provided the sweetness that normally comes from honey in baklava, and was a more interesting flavor for sure.  I'm pretty sure there was cardamom in there too.

I thought there was too much pistachio on the plate, again, the balance of items just a bit off, but perhaps that is just because I'm not crazy about pistachio?

What I loved however was the salt.  Yes, the salt.  There was salt in the dish, and it really enhanced the flavor.

Overall, it was good, a creative play on baklava, an enjoyable dish to eat, but, I really just wanted more cream!
Poached Apple. $10.
"Saffron and cardamom whipped cream, cinnamon ice cream, walnut jam, rum-soaked fruit medley."

Next to me, a fellow dinner got the poached apple.  In fact, two people did.  I mocked them, as honestly, poached apples and pears are near the bottom of the dessert barrel for me, but I'll admit that this was a pretty awesome looking preparation.

While I didn't want to try the poached fruit, I was very interested in the walnut jam.  It was really delicious, made from black walnuts, in a slightly sticky sauce.  Yum.  I'd like to see that added to the baklava instead of the pistachio ...
Cucumber Yogurt Preserves. $9.
"White cherry preserves, cardamom."

Another member of the table ordered the cucumber yogurt preserves.  It was definitely the most interesting dessert, and one I'd never, ever order.

To me, yogurt and cucumber are just not dessert, even when plated with sweet preserves.  I did try a bite, and yes, it was creamy yogurt with fresh cucumber, but ... yeah, not for me.

The guy who ordered it loved it, declaring it "lovely and refreshing", and, I guess if you like this sort of thing, it really was a nice light ending to a meal, and one that wouldn't leave you feeling gross from having something too rich or too sweet.

I give Fly Trap credit for having a unique option like this on the menu, and, for the beautiful plating.
Flourless Chocolate Pecan Torte. $10.
"Champagne zabaglione, fresh berries."

And finally, a chocolate option, for the chocolate lovers out there.  I was planning to ask for a bite of this, but, by the time I looked up to ask, it was gone.  Doh.  Seems like it was also a hit.
Decaf Coffee.
I also ordered a decaf coffee alongside my dessert, as I like the pairing.  The server warned me it would take a few minutes since he was going to brew a fresh pot.  It arrived with my dessert, which is exactly when I wanted it, so, no problem.

The coffee was fine.  Not very memorable, but, for decaf, that is a good thing.  Smooth, drinkable, exactly what I wanted with my dessert.

Original Review, April 2012

The day my Australian visitors were leaving, another group was arriving!  So much dining hosting to do!  I didn't know they'd be making it to San Francisco, so the first meal I took them too was planned fairly last minute (as in, an hour before we went).  I fell back on an old favorite of mine: Zare at Fly Trap.

The restaurant is located just down the street from our office, and used to be the halfway point between my home and work.  A few years ago, I went somewhat regularly, but it had been at least a year since I'd been.  Lately, the chef has been sharing photos on Facebook of all the incredible special dishes he has been serving, and I've been seriously drooling over them.  I somewhat jokingly sent him a message asking if there was anything with scallops, uni, or foie gras on the menu that evening (a bunch of my favorite ingredients!), and he replied saying he'd combine them all into a dish just for me.  Um, clearly I had to go there, stat!

The cuisine here is a little hard to describe.  I guess I'd call it French, but with Persian and Mediterranean inspiration, and of course, using fresh local Californian ingredients.  I find the menu really fun, ridiculously creative spins on Persian dishes, or more standard French or Californian items with Persian ingredients thrown in.  Be on the lookout for pomegranate, pistachios, saffron, and rose water!  They do fun things like on Monday nights always serving some kinda of crazy kufte, and offering some form of dolme every night, where dolme is a very lose interpretation basically meaning just something stuffed with something.

Fly Trap was just as I remembered.  Nicely decorated, in that casual, swanky, SOMA style.  A little on the loud side, but mostly just in an energetic way.  Service was ok, not particularly notable.  Food was good, and reasonably priced.  The best part of course was the owner/chef creating a dish just for my group!  That is hospitality taken to a whole new level!  Thank you :)

I'll definitely be back before July, as I hear a rumor that the chef's old signature dish, the manage a foie, will be coming back sometime soon!
Sourdough bread & lavash, feta-walnut spread, caspian tapenade.  $6.
Back in the day, I used to stop in on my walk home from work and just get this togo.  I was obsessed with these spreads, so I ordered them immediately when we sat down, to munch on while we figured out what else to get.

The bread was crisp and toasted, the lavash warm and soft.  The caspian tapenade had a great olive flavor and the feta-walnut spread was creamy, nutty, and salty.  Each was good on its own, but I enjoyed them the most by combining some of each.

The perfect bite for me was some lavash, spread with equal parts of each of the spreads, and then rolled up and enjoyed as finger food.  I'm not sure if the spreads have changed, or if I had so much of them back then that I'm finally over them, but they weren't quite as fantastic as I remembered.  Still nice to have something to munch on at the start of the meal though, and I'd order again if others wanted it.
Pistachio meatballs, red harissa, honey, pomegranate.  $13.
I'm pretty sure these are a lamb based meatballs.  Try as I might, I still just can't get into the flavor of lamb.  I keep trying it whenever others order it, in a variety of forms, but it still just isn't appealing to me.  I'll keep persevering though, one day, I may finally like it!

Given that, I didn't really like the meatballs.  They did have a really nice crust on the outside, but weren't very moist inside, and were really lamby.  But the sauce was awesome.  Perfectly balanced, with the tartness from the pomegranate and the sweetness from the honey.  I enjoyed soaking up all of the remaining sauce with the lavash!

Our server noted when we ordered this that there were only three meatballs, and four of us, and asked if we wanted a forth.  We declined, but this was thoughtful and great service!
Smoked trout, cucumber, tobiko, dill.  $14. 
Surprise awesometastic dish of the night!

I think we all expected this to just be some smoked trout, with a little bit of cucumber on the side or something.  Instead, it was cucumber "linguine", with chunks of smoked trout integrated throughout.

The trout was fantastic.  It was flaky, and had a really wonderful smokyness.  I really liked it.

The cucumber linguine was also really great.  Clearly incredibly fresh, crisp, and refreshing.

It was all dressed in a creamy, slightly tart, crème fraîche based dressing.

Then there was was ton of fresh dill mixed in, which paired perfectly with the trout, cucumber, and yogurt, and just kicked the flavors of the entire thing up a million notches.

Every component of this dish was great on its own, but then combined they also complimented and enhanced each other absolutely perfectly.  This dish was a serious winner, full of great flavors, and also really fun to eat.  Creating the perfect bite was just like eating pasta: a fork swirled with the linguine, and then stab a chunk of trout.  Awesome.

I'd order this again in a heartbeat!  It was really, truly, fantastic.

( If you want to make this at home yourself, here is a video of Hoss preparing it! )
Bone marrow, turmeric, preserved lime, bergamot.  $14
We didn't order this, but the chef sent it out for us.  Somehow, I've never actually had bone marrow straight from a bone before (I've had it in sauces, etc, but never just ordered the marrow).

As this was my first time having it, I wasn't sure what to expect.  It kinda reminded me of seared foie gras, which I love, but it was slimier and fattier tasting.  I didn't really like it.  I'm sure this is an acquired experience though, so I'd certainly try it again.

The persian pickles on the plate were salty, crunchy, and good.  I'm a pickle lover, so I appreciated these!

The pumpkin jam was awesome.  It had this great pumpkin flavor, but was also sweet.  It tasted a lot like "classic" Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole, just in a jam!  It had the pumpkin/sweet potato flavor to it, and then a hint of brown sugar/maple syrupy flavor, and even the sweetness like from marshmallow topping.  Really hard to describe, but honestly, it was like putting one of those casseroles into a spoonful.  I loved it, and again used all the remaining bread in sight to finish it up!

While I didn't really like the marrow, I'm really glad I finally tried it in this pure form, and appreciated the gesture from the chef.  And that pumpkin jam!  So tasty, I'd encourage someone else to order this again just so I could eat the jam :)
 Diver scallops, asparagus, prosciutto, potatoes.  Plus ... uni sauce, seared foie gras!  $28.
This was our custom made dish.  It was the standard preparation of the scallops on the menu, but then topped with uni sauce and a few chunks of seared foie gras!

The potatoes and asparagus were just simply roasted and seasoned, fairly standard.

The scallops were decently seared, but more cooked than I prefer, definitely cooked all the way through rather than a little rare.

The prosciutto was crispy, salty, and a great compliment to the scallops.  I think it works really well in the original dish, also complimenting the potato and the asparagus, but prosciutto and foie was a little much :)

The uni sauce (added because I love uni!) was very light and mild.  I could somewhat distinguish the uni flavor, but it wasn't very strong.  I believe they were using this as the finishing element on a soup that evening, where it probably came across stronger, as it wasn't masked by as many other rich components.

And then there were chunks of seared foie gras (added because I love foie gras!).  Each scallop came topped with its own piece (two had fallen off by the time this photo was taken).  Like I was hoping, the foie gras went really well with the scallops, a good contrast of both flavors and textures.  The scallop was slightly sweet, light, and firm, contrasting and complimenting the foie, buttery, rich, and creamy.

I enjoyed this, and I'm still rather stunned that they added the foie and uni sauce to the dish for me!  What amazing hospitality.  Thank you very much Hoss!
Goat cheesecake,  date jam, walnuts.  $9.
So, I love dessert.  I was stuffed at this point, but I really don't know how to finish a meal without dessert.  Its just my thing.

I was excited for the panna cotta listed on the menu (again, another one of my obsessions these days), but the waiter informed us that it had been replaced by a pistachio crepe and ice cream.  Sadness!

So then I was excited for the baklava, but no one else at the table was interested in sharing it.  One other diner was interested in the goat cheesecake, which isn't something I'd ever normally pick since I really, really don't like goat cheese (at least, traditional soft style goat cheeses), but I wanted dessert, and this seemed like my only option!  We also had one other diner who loves cheeses, but hates sweets, so if this was cheesy enough, and not super sweet, it was possible he'd be into it as well.  We asked the waiter if it was really goaty, he said no.  We asked if it was really sweet, he said no.  He told us that it was just really well balanced and really fantastic.  So, we ordered it.

On the plate were some dates, some pistacho crumble, some date jam, and of course, the goat cheese cheesecake.

The cheesecake was incredibly fluffy, almost mousse like, and sat atop a shortbread crust.  The crust was buttery and delicious.  The cheesecake however was both very sweet and very goaty.  My non-sweet liking dining companion wanted nothing to do with this, nor did I, finding it way, way too goaty.

I do admit that the goat cheese and fig paired very well together, and if I liked goat cheese, I could imagine this would be fantastic.
Pistacho crepes, ice cream.  $9.
One other person at the table ordered the pistachio dessert.  It was gone within seconds, so I think he really liked it.  I didn't get a taste, so don't have anything to add here.  He also ordered the lamb shank entree, which I also didn't have, but I did have a taste of the torshi (persian pickled stuffs) that comes on the side, and thought that it was fantastic.
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