Spend a night at Les Zygomates and it could be 1994 or 2004 or 2014. This is not a knock. The wine bar and bistro, which opened 20 years ago, has changed over time. In fact, many of the changes are recent. In January, along with sister restaurant Sorriso, it got new owners with local roots and experience at big Vegas restaurants. They brought in a new chef, Robert Fathman, who was recently at Legal Harborside, and in the past headed the likes of Azure and the Federalist. But they didn’t bring any Vegas-style glitz. Les Zygomates feels just the same. Its essence is in the brick walls of the place. Lean back in a banquette on a Friday night and look up at the musicians playing jazz on the narrow stage. Slather too much good butter on a morsel of mediocre baguette and drink red wine. Watch the grown-ups at play, new couples caressing cheeks and exchanging swoony public kisses like kids. Hmm. Maybe you are a grown-up now, too. Maybe you don’t feel any different, either.
So that’s the main thing, the “why” of Les Zygomates — the jazz, the wine, the companionship. The food is comfortable, solid. Some of it is very good. Some of it less so. It balances out.
Lobster bisque, for instance, starts off promising, topped with a lid of flaky pastry. But the soup beneath is lukewarm, and after a few spoonfuls it becomes monotonous. It (or a very similar substance) works better as a sauce, pooling around sauteed monkfish with caramelized onions, braised fennel, and fennel pollen. Onion soup gratinee one evening is a satisfying rendition, the broth heady with sherry, topped with nutty melted Gruyere and aged gouda. On another visit the cheese is more incinerated than melted, gone past gooey to crusty and dry.
A preparation of sweetbreads feels perfectly modern and classic at once. At home in a bistro, it would play equally well at one of the city’s new-school, small plates-focused gastropubs. The organ meat is breaded and fried crisp, creamy and dense within. The nuggets are then crisscrossed with strips of bacon, drizzled with brown butter, and served with capers and a lemon wedge, cutting richness with acidic zing. Mussels come in a smoky broth, with tasso ham, mezcal, tomatoes, and cumin. It is a few degrees too sweet, but the flavors, via New Orleans and Mexico, are a nice change from the usual. But gouda flan, served with asparagus, pea tendrils, and peas, is far too sweet, like eating gouda-tinted mascarpone. It is a grainy version of what-should-be-creamy flan.
Scallops are seared deep brown, served with truffled celery root puree, Perigord truffle, and mushrooms. It is a pleasingly rich, elegant little dish, although the truffle flavor is not particularly pronounced. Swordfish suffers on the grill, so dry it is inedible. The accompanying ratatouille and smoked eggplant puree don’t work hard enough to save it.
Two meaty dishes should be pitch perfect at a bistro — steak frites and boeuf Bourguignon. Woe! The former is a disappointment, with overcooked grass-fed sirloin and bland fries. The latter is a disaster, a berg of beef with all the flavor braised out of it. Where’d it go? Nowhere on this plate, despite lardons, mushrooms, and potato puree. It’s not a very good magic trick.
But a Moroccan-style lamb dish is a fragrant delight, bone jutting from fork-tender meat, with couscous, roast tomato, preserved lemon, and harissa that brings pleasing heat. And a roast chicken special one night is just what you’d want and expect, a simple pleasure with crisp skin and moist meat.
The torched sugar crust on an otherwise good creme brulee has gone soggy by the time it reaches our table. Profiteroles avoid the same fate, with chocolate sauce drizzled tableside over the pastry puffs filled with caramel ice cream. And that dullest-sounding sweet, flourless chocolate cake, might get passed over unless you see one heading out to another table. The perfect cube of creamy chocolate is topped with a curled ribbon of chocolate, like an elegant gift box.
The level of service here varies from staffer to staffer, sometimes attentive, often distracted. Bartenders are friendly, which makes one feel forgiving when there isn’t enough creme de cassis in the kir royales. Les Zygomates has a short list of house cocktails and an eclectic enough beer selection to keep enthusiasts from pouting. But this is a wine bar, with a high-end list of bottles that draws heavily from France. (The glass list is more affordable.) The reserve list is richer, stocked with prestigious names. It is the sort of place where one might wish for — or even expect — ready guidance in discriminating among Bordeaux, or information about a red Burgundy beyond “It’s pinot noir.” (Oh really.) We don’t find it.
If one has a mind to be affronted about such things, head somewhere with a visible sommelier or interested servers. There is occasional brusqueness or lack of polish at Les Zygomates, but it doesn’t feel out of line with the bistro experience, social and casual. Eat something. Share a bottle. Hear some music. But come to enjoy each other’s company.
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