Zoi’s on Orange calls itself “an American Bistro.” With a blackboard menu, Paris cafe scenes, and wrought iron sidewalk tables, it could easily be mistaken for one. But close your eyes and listen. The sound is not that of the Seine, but rather the smooth hum of a Snapple drink cooler.
Located at 388 1/2 Orange St., Zoi’s is the kind of neighborhood place that could never exist in the middle of downtown. It is simply too small and too friendly. Sunlight filters through a glass storefront onto half a dozen wooden tables; the room seats at most 16. A bulletin board displays the front page of the New Haven Register along with thank you notes from Zoi’s customers, and a glass platter near the register beckons with cookies.
Zoi Maniatis and her husband Pete do a brisk lunch business, serving sandwiches and salads to a takeout-loving crowd. You won’t find students or professors here — just working New Haveners with an appetite for food with a personal, homemade taste. Pete checks in to ask if everything is okay or if he can get you anything else. “We overbaked ’em today,” he once confessed, when I ordered a chocolate chip cookie. “Is that alright?”
Most importantly, this attention to detail is nearly always present in the food. The menu at Zoi’s is extensive and reasonably priced, including breakfast (“Good Morning! Served All Day”), soups, salads and sandwiches. The bread is fresh, the greens are crisp, and, for the most part, everything is delicious.
Salads are uniformly excellent. Served in a bowl nearly a foot across, the chicken Caesar salad ($6.25) is as tasty as it is big. Plump slices of grilled chicken, noticeably rubbed with cracked peppercorns, cover nearly every bit of Romaine. The dressing is homemade and tangy, poured on heavily but not so much as to drown the greens. A small Greek salad ($3.95) is a soulful rendition, topped with a stuffed grape leaf and showered with onions, feta and kalamata olives. A vinegary dressing adds zing to the dish.
Perhaps best, however, are the sandwiches ($6.25). Deserving of its title is the #1: house-roasted beef, onion, tomato, and horseradish mayo on pumpernickel. The pink shaved beef is meaty enough to stand up to the onion, with the not-too-spicy mayo providing just the right textural balance. The bread is flavorful and impeccably fresh. The #8 — a breaded chicken cutlet with bacon, smoked mozzarella, and a chipotle mayonnaise — is similarly fresh and filling. “This is a man’s sandwich right here,” announced my dining companion, although with its crisp bacon and smoky mayo, the #8 would appeal to either gender. Another favorite was Friday’s special: Thanksgiving on a Roll. Shaved house-roasted turkey was topped with homemade sage stuffing and enlivened with the zing of cranberry sauce.
Only the #6, a concoction of tarragon chicken salad with apples and caramelized nuts, lags behind the rest. While the tarragon complements the chicken and the apples add textural contrast, it takes some searching to find the nuts. The “seasonal mixed greens” promised by the menu are in fact Romaine lettuce.
The sole disappointment on our visit was a cup of sausage lentil soup ($2.95). Lentil soup should warm and nourish the soul, usually more of a stew than a soup. Arriving in a Styrofoam cup, this rendition was nothing more than a couple chunks of sausage floating in a lonely broth, with some lentils added as an afterthought. A slick of yellow oil floated on top. While the flavor wasn’t bad, this was a sad soup indeed.
Cookies ($1.25), however, had as much cheer as Zoi herself. With Pete’s confession about the overbaked chocolate chips, I sprang for peanut butter. Studded with peanut butter chips, it was a prudent example with a solid nutty flavor, neither Frisbee-sized and over-the-top nor meek and crummy. On a later visit I tried the chocolate chip version and was glad I had waited; it was pleasantly chewy and loaded with chips.
The food at Zoi’s is not only delicious but well within a student’s price range, making the restaurant easily worth the 10-minute walk from Cross Campus. Indeed, the distance is part of what makes the restaurant so appealing. A trip to Zoi’s is a breath of fresh air, an escape to a simple roast beef sandwich or peanut butter cookie. At their tiny American lunch spot, Zoi and Pete will make you feel at home.