An ambitious New American-style restaurant settles in Pennington.
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Peter Benchley wrote part of Jaws while living in Pennington, but apart from that, the tiny borough (population 2,696) north of Trenton has few claims to fame. It’s certainly never been a dining destination, the excellent cheesesteaks at Vito’s Pizzeria notwithstanding.
But after Za opened in 2006, reports circulated that an ambitious restaurant had come to town. Za’s theme—“cross-cultural comfort cuisine,” as stated on its website—and its name (the last syllable of “Valenza,” the family name of the owners) gives no indication which cultures are being combined. Chef Mark Valenza, who owns the restaurant with his brother Chaz, seems to have a thing for ambiguous titles, having played drums in an American band called The The and written a novel called Baseball & Benevolence before he enrolled at the French Culinary Institute.
The space at Za is equally disorienting. You walk through the door to find yourself practically standing in the kitchen, which is only partially tucked behind the dining room wall. The dining room, decorated in the soothing creams and yellows of a country inn, is long, narrow, and intimate. In warmer months, you can pass through a portion of the kitchen to a charming patio, which more than doubles the restaurant’s 40-seat capacity. Outside, wisteria vines weave a roof over the floor, and a gurgling water garden deftly masks the noise of traffic from Route 31.
Valenza’s cooking evinces a much more direct sensibility than the name and the space might suggest. In his hands, “cross-cultural comfort cuisine” turns out to be, for example, a French preparation (sole sautéed with chicken stock, herbs, butter, and lemon) finished with Jersey corn and diced avocado, giving the resulting sauce a delicious thickness that yet respects the delicately flavored fish. It’s a punchy goat cheese salad with a golf ball-sized lump of warm Montrachet sautéed in panko breadcrumbs, a tart green-apple and cranberry chutney, and a heap of very fresh field greens in white balsamic vinaigrette. It’s Za’s earthy, crunchy, complex lentil salad, amped up with sautéed spinach, cherry tomatoes, curried pistachio nuts, and raisins.
There’s Roman gnocchi made with parmesan and semolina flour, sautéed to a golden brown. The gnocchi’s nutty flavor was balanced by a deliciously salty walnut-tomato sauce and dollops of melting goat cheese. Steamed Prince Edward Island mussels came with hunks of grilled bread to soak up the aromatic white-wine broth.
So far, so good. Valenza’s tempura technique, as exemplified by four soggy, over-breaded shrimp, needs work. In his entrées, he has a habit of presenting gorgeously prepared meats and fish with lackluster accompaniments that seem like afterthoughts. Mediterranean lamb chops, for example, marinated with rosemary, garlic, and balsamic vinegar and expertly grilled, came with a watery lemon tabbouleh and buttered (but plain-tasting) haricots verts. Fat, flavorful New Jersey scallops, beautifully seared, were ill-served by a slapdash salad of haricots verts, avocado, tomato, and grilled summer squash.
A Berkshire pork chop, exactly as juicy and flavorful as our server promised, was served with pico de gallo smashed potatoes and more plain haricots verts. (The chef claims that, when cooked right, haricots verts need nothing; I disagree, and would have appreciated a little salt, or lemon butter). The potatoes, however, were a nice touch. The house-made pico de gallo has a decent kick, making for a smart play on the cafeteria classic of ketchup and mashed potatoes. But there were unadorned, unappealing roasted red bliss potatoes with several other entrées, including a bland Chateaubriand. Given the nuance and vibrancy of the appetizers, and with plenty of dishes topping $30, I had hoped for more than merest meat and potatoes.
There are some nice flourishes to the service, like chilled champagne flutes for your BYO sparkling wine, but there were stretches of inattentiveness that bordered on neglect. If Za is busy, you should expect a lengthy pause between courses.
Desserts, when they arrive, are worth the wait. You have to order the chocolate soufflé in advance, and you should; the dish is a triumph of rich flavor and airy, moist texture. Key lime pie packed serious Key lime flavor, and a toasted almond crème brûlée had delicious notes of amaretto and vanilla under a beautifully caramelized shell.
With due respect to Vito’s, Za is the best restaurant in Pennington, delivering (if unevenly) the kind of meals that would have fortified Benchley as he toiled on his novel in a rented room above a furnace company.