There was a time when it was rare to spot a creature like Zebra's Bistro and Wine Bar beyond city limits. Zebra's opened in Medfield in 1999, when suburban restaurant meals often came packaged in greasy cardboard containers. That's not the case anymore. For a restaurant critic, one of this year's refrains is "Fine dining takes over the suburbs." City rents are sky high, and the existing market in surrounding towns is finally being recognized. How nice to go out for dinner without a long drive for dessert.
But if Zebra's is no longer an exception, it is still notable. Executive chef Brendan Pelley took the helm last year, bringing with him experience at restaurants including Clio, Summer Winter in Burlington, Tryst in Beverly, the Franklin Cape Ann and Alchemy in Gloucester, and the Stonehedge Inn & Spa in Tyngsborough — a veritable tour of fine dining beyond Boston city limits. Set Zebra's more centrally, though, and it would fit right in, with local-beer dinners, produce grown in its own kitchen garden, and relationships with area farms.
Sometimes Pelley and sous chef Nicholas Katavola let their seasonal ingredients speak for themselves, in simple dishes like scampi with perfectly cooked shrimp, house-made tagliatelle, tomato, lemon, arugula, and basil. It's clean and a bit quiet — the ingredients could stand to speak up. The finest moments at Zebra's come when the chefs offer imaginative amplification, smoking strawberries, say, or pickling cilantro root.
These intriguing tastes most often wind up on the raw bar and charcuterie menu, the best thing about Zebra's. The smoked strawberries appear as part of a summery composition also featuring raw diver scallops, radishes, and radish greens. The scallops are creamy and cooling, the strawberries tart and mysterious, the radishes refreshing. The dish looks as lovely as it tastes, crimson, ivory, and emerald against a rectangle of black slate.
Shrimp turns up again in ceviche, fresh and citrusy against slices of red onion, jalapenos, and creamy avocado. Gravlax is made in house; oysters are served with chipotle mignonette. Everything on the raw bar menu is light and bright.
And then there is the charcuterie, heavy, rich, and completely delicious. There is decadent pastrami made from duck breast, spiced with juniper, coriander, and throat-catching black pepper. A terrine goes to Asia, made with pork and shiitake mushrooms, five-spice powder, ginger, and garlic. The showstopper is called "Head & Shoulders," pig head and shoulder formed into a cube, breaded, and fried until all that tender, fatty meat is contained in a crisp golden shell. Because you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
The charcuterie, too, is artfully presented on black slate, with dollops of mustard, crisp toasts, and excellent house-made pickles that counteract the richness with welcome bite. They are so good, in fact, it's worth ordering a whole plate. It might feature anything from asparagus to black radishes to fiddleheads to that cilantro root, a genius idea for a pickle.
Snacks like these, or an addictive Indian-spiced nut mix, or wontons filled with pork belly give those who visit Zebra's the wine bar something to chew on. The restaurant, housed in a little brick building with a sweet patio beside it, is split between a comfortable, casual lounge area and a dining room with white tablecloths, walls decorated with images of zebras and paintings by local artists. Servers are largely attentive, professional, and patient (a chilly encounter with one staffer is the exception).
The wine list feels like a compilation of bottles beverage director and manager Phil Marshall loves personally or believes customers will — weighted toward reds, with California cabernet a focus, but including the likes of the omnipresent Kung Fu Girl riesling. One can also sample flights of six wines. Too, there is a cocktail menu with creative drinks like the chamomile Scotch sour; frosty pink grapefruit-ginger cosmos are being delivered by the trayful on a recent meltingly hot night.
Those who visit Zebra's the bistro encounter more-traditional starters and main courses: mussels with butter, chives, and lemon or salad with strawberries and goat cheese, pan-roasted chicken with Madeira mushroom sauce or grilled pork chops. They aren't anything a diner hasn't seen before, but this is where Pelley's skill with vegetables shows. That chicken (crisp-skinned but a bit dry) comes with excellent, tender red kale, while coulotte steak (grilled nicely rare but oversalted) pairs with chunks of sweet summer squash and chimichurri sauce. The sweetness of seared scallops is accentuated by parsnip puree and corn veloute, with a summer succotash lending texture to the dish. With the exception of a well-done salmon dish one night, the kitchen is strong on seafood. A lobster risotto special deserves to be featured on the main menu, with nicely cooked grains and plentiful, tender seafood.
Amid the classic dishes on the main menu are a few twists. One that works particularly well is a juicy-crisp soft-shell crab with ginger-garlic sauce and pickles, a yuzu-flavored aioli serving as velvety, zippy complement. And a burger gets the cheffy, umamified treatment, with pickled onions, cheddar, bacon, and miso aioli, plus a side of truffle fries.
Desserts, too, go beyond the rote. A rich, dense chocolate mousse terrine gets a hit of sea salt, crunch from pistachios, and visual interest (although not much added flavor) from white chocolate powder. Vanilla ice cream is sandwiched between Rice Krispie chocolate-chunk cookies, the confection drizzled in bourbon caramel. And on a recent evening, there is a special that is simple, seasonal perfection: a bowl of blueberries with cream and brown sugar.
If Zebra's could fit in downtown, so could its prices. That doesn't seem to be deterring visitors, however. Even on a Tuesday night, the place isn't just doing business — it's downright crowded. That's more than one can say for some similar restaurants in the city midweek. Their owners might want to consider a move to the suburbs.