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ZaZa revamp worth the revisit

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published April 3, 2014 at 3:18 a.m.


The Wise Guy, a pizza special at ZaZa Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Co. in the Heights, features light mozzarella, curd, garlic, onion, sausage and shaved Parmesan on an extra-virgin olive oil base.

A couple of months ago, the original location of ZaZa Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Co., on the back side of the former Heights Theater building on Kavanaugh Boulevard, shut down for a couple of weeks for a physical and menu face-lift.

The good news: The physical changes have somewhat enhanced the dining experience and the new menu items, at least the ones we identified and tried, are worthwhile additions. There’s also a greater emphasis on local sources for produce. And the food was just as good as it has ever been.

The casual observer, somebody who maybe doesn’t visit the restaurant that often, might recognize some of the changes - the exterior got new awnings, for example; there’s a great deal more white subway tile, particularly behind the redesigned and cleaned-up bar/gelato bar, and great, sturdy metal shelves full of cut wood, literally or symbolically ready to be chucked into the huge, cylindrical wood-burning, stone-floored pizza oven from which the restaurant takes half its name.

There’s been some subtle adjustments in the seating areas, principally the new lightweight but sturdy chairs, but there hasn’t been any significant increase in seating, which would have been nice considering how packed the place gets at lunch and some dinner periods.

Nor did the renovation fix at least one basic design flaw: the jam-up that results from folks waiting for gelato blocking the entrance for folks coming through the front door and the line of folks waiting to order salads and pizzas.

That order system remains in place. You can make your selections from either large menu boards or sturdy paper menus, although most people don’t realize those are available. The line winds its way to the reverse salad bar, where you place your order and busy ZaZa elves compile big bowls of a dozen gourmet entree-size salads. Be prepared: For an entree-size salad you’re going to pay an entree-size price, but if you look carefully, you’ll see there’s a $3-less small-salad option.

Follow the flow to the register, where you place pizza, soup and drink orders and pay for it all. If you’re waiting on something, you get a number; then you take your salad and/or soup and head for a dining area, downstairs, upstairs or on the patio, fetching your own silverware, napkins, drink cups and accessories en route.

And if the place is busy, and it usually is, it may require as much luck (while juggling all that stuff) to land a table as it did to land a space in the parking lot.

The new menu boards don’t exactly identify what’s new and what isn’t, but at lunch we brought along a regular who helped guide us along the right path.

One new salad was an instant hit: the Sesame Ahi Tuna ($13.50), romaine and spring mix salad tossed with avocado, cucumber, edamame, green onions, lemon, toasted sesame seeds, wasabi peas and a ponzu vinaigrette (you can specify light, medium or heavy, or you can get the dressing on the side; extra side dressing is 75 cents), topped with several slices of slightly seared, sushi-grade ahi tuna. It was a lot of food and we felt like we were eating distressingly “healthfully,” but it’s one of the best meals we’ve had in a while.

We were less excited by our Baja Shrimp Salad ($12.25), which, if it had been made as the menu lists it, would have featured romaine, avocado, cilantro, grapefruit and tortilla strips in a chipotle vinaigrette, topped with wood-oven-roasted shrimp.

The salad elves don’t mind substitutions, so at Intrepid Companion’s request they added corn and black beans and left out the grapefruit, for which the assembling elf substituted, without prior authorization (although it turned out to be a good idea), mandarin oranges. That helped, and so did the lively shrimp, but the chipotle vinaigrette turned out to be very vinegary, and it took a while for us to appreciate the subtlety of the spice scheme.

There’s also a create-your own salad option, $6.75 for the greens and dressing, pay extra per item for additional items.

We’ve always been big fans of ZaZa’s firm, thin pizza crusts and gourmet topping combinations; the tomato sauce, for example, contains only five ingredients and is made daily in a hand-cranked mill. The wood oven cooks the final product for about four minutes at 700-750 degrees.

We picked, pretty much by accident, one of the new pies - the 3 Little Pigs ($14.50), red sauce and mozzarella topped with pepperoni and Petit Jean bacon and ham. Though the menu labels it a “double-meat” pizza, we were initially disappointed with just how much meat was actually on the pie. Turns out some of it was hiding under the cheese. Anyway, we’d order it again.

One of the daily specials was just too good to pass up: the Wise Guy (market price du jour, $13.25), light mozzarella, curd, garlic, onion, sausage and shaved Parmesan on a base not of red sauce but of extra virgin olive oil. It tasted wonderful on the wooden peel on which it was served, and just as good, if not better, out of the to-go box in which we took a couple of slices home.

The cup of the lobster bisque soup du jour was well worth the $3.95 we spent; it was thick and spicy and we even found a shred of lobster meat toward the bottom of the cup.

We didn’t get to try the gelato this go-round. But that gives us an incentive to return earlier and more often.

ZaZa Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Co.

Address: 5600 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday Cuisine: Salads, pizzas, gelato Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Wine and beer Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 661-9292 (ZAZA)

Weekend, Pages 29 on 04/03/2014

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