Brandon Liu

On Jan. 18, 2019, Yale Daily News restaurant reviewers Kofi Ansong ’21 and Brandon Liu ’22 ate lunch with the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. They went to Kitchen Zinc. Here are some of their reflections …

BL: Zinc — just steps away from Old Campus along the New Haven Green — is the type of restaurant you might take your mother to. It’s a local establishment with strong roots in Connecticut; chefs Denise Appel and Alex Blifford hail from Glastonbury and Branford, respectively, and it has occupied its downtown location on Chapel Street since Appel opened doors 20 years ago. Zinc fuses international influences and ingredients from at least 15 regional farms in a modern menu, and prices reflect that. From a student’s perspective, it is certainly a splurge, a conveniently located upscale spot for special occasions — a good reason why we chose Zinc for our date with Pete Wells.

KA: It did not take long for our plate of wonton nachos to come. Usually when a waiter or waitress brings me nachos, I grab for the chips immediately. As a restaurant reviewer, I now take a picture before eating, so that I can recall the experience to mind when I write. Eating out with Pete Wells, I learned to do something else before eating: stare.

PW: This is called the reviewer’s stare. I’m told it is terrifying to witness. Sometimes inexperienced servers have to be rushed off the dining room floor when they see it and replaced by older, less fragile staff members. I don’t do it to be scary, though. I’m just trying to take things in and form a picture in my mind, even though I will often take a photo with my phone as well.

KA: Eyes squinted, Pete got close up to the nachos and stared and did not even look away when he asked us what we thought of the nachos. Well, they looked like they would taste really good. But, before I or Brandon reached for them, we also spent the time like our mentor and hoped our eyes would lead us to some discovery.

PW: Everything looked pretty fresh, right? These didn’t look like nachos that had been sitting around for an hour waiting for somebody to order them. The ingredients had that perky, wide-awake look.

KA: After around 30 seconds of silent inspection, I hadn’t noticed much. Some of the wonton nachos glistened with oil, while others didn’t. I wouldn’t be able to tell the blobs of dark brown meat were pork if not for the menu. The nacho toppings formed an inner circle on top of the chips. Thankfully, Pete moved his gaze away from the nachos and with a smile turned toward Brandon and me, ready to dig in.

As I ate the nachos, I noticed that none of the topping had reached my hand. Now, perhaps, I would have later on come to the same conclusion while looking at the picture, but I realized then and there that the inner layer of topping allowed for a clean grab of the nacho from the bare outer layer. Imitating Wells’ stare allowed me to enjoy the nachos’ clever design in addition to its delightful taste.

PW: I really liked that there was a clean “handle” on every wonton skin, too. I assume it was intentional. It definitely helped with the “eatability” of the nachos, which is something that chefs sometimes forget to pay attention to.

BL: When I asked Pete Wells if he has any particular method of choosing dishes at the restaurants he reviews, he paused for a while, then explained that he just chooses whatever he feels like eating at the time.

PW: I usually go to restaurants three times before I write a review, so by the third time I have probably already eaten everything that sounds good and will be ordering stuff that I wasn’t as excited about initially. But I’ve come across some delicious things that way. The dishes with the grabbiest descriptions on the menu aren’t always the best. Can’t judge a book, proof of the pudding, etc.

BL: I feel as though dining out should be a gratifying experience, indulgent in the sense that when you do go to a restaurant you shouldn’t feel dissuaded to order what you really want.

PW: I am so glad you said this! And so glad that you think it. It’s too bad that people allow themselves to be distracted by what’s trending, what’s hashtagged, even what the restaurant critic said was best. People allow themselves to stop listening to their appetites, and that’s not healthy, and ultimately leads to frustration.

BL: Pete said that in part of the job, he’ll sometimes also order a menu item that seems particularly ambitious, to see how and if they can actually pull it off. In our meal at Zinc, that was the smoked duck breast nachos.

It turns out, my favorite dish at Zinc were those nachos. Not to dwell on the same dish as Kofi, but the combination of tender duck meat, rich aioli and lime crema layered on fresh fried wonton skins made for a crisp yet melt-in-your-mouth nacho experience.

PW: I was surprised by how well the wontons worked. My point of comparison here was the fried lasagna noodles that Guy Fieri put on his nachos at his Times Square restaurant. I didn’t think that choice really worked out for him, but the wonton skins really do work at Zinc.

BL: I had the soba noodle sauté as my entree, and I appreciated the noodles and spice from the coconut curry sauce. A hint of sweetness from the coconut permeates the noodles, though it doesn’t do much for the added bok choy, carrot strips and peas. The dish is topped with a fried egg over easy, and with a variety of bright colors, the sauté looked a bit like a carnival.

KA: I waited on my wagyu burger expecting it would be made with the same user-friendliness as the nachos. I imagined a thick patty, but buns firm enough to absorb the meat’s oil. Also, thinly sliced onions and lettuce would stack on top of the patty, surrounded by melted cheese. When I started thinking about the bacon that was not an ingredient on the wagyu burger, I realized I was anticipating a burger from Max Burger, a restaurant nearby by home in West Hartford, Connecticut, and not Zinc’s wagyu.

Since I am a lifelong lover of burgers, it is too easy for me to praise a burger before I even order it. As a critic, though, I must be a phenomenologist. That’s to say I try to erase both sentimentality and any technical knowledge of a food and instead write only on how food appears to my senses as I eat it. A tough job made tougher by my preferences (and aversion) toward some food.

BL: To finish, the three of us shared the sweet polenta brûlée, which arrived with salted caramel popcorn, which we enjoyed but agreed didn’t add much, seeing that a caramel flavor was already well represented in the dessert.

PW: Right. It was the kind of dish that as a critic you feel kind of like a jerk for criticizing, because the individual elements were good, and a normal person would probably just eat the popcorn, or the polenta, whichever was their favorite, and not worry about how well they went together.

BL: Alba Estenoz, Zinc’s pastry chef, had crafted a thoughtful, if brief, selection of desserts when we visited. While I vouched for the chocolate mousse cake, Kofi wanted to split the goat and mascarpone cheesecake with pear. This was curious to see, as Kofi had no desire for the mousse, and I myself wanted no business with fruit and cheese in my dessert. Pete Wells, the guest expert, pointed to this disagreement as a hallmark of a well designed menu — that a variety of flavors be represented and that each diner may be drawn forth by their own tastes.

On the point of sharing, I was surprised to see that Wells was both eager and cordial in sharing food during our meal at Zinc, despite us having just met an hour before. American manners, and our parents, teach us to restrain the urge to eat what’s on the plate of the person across from you; nonetheless, Kofi and I were happy to try his beef bulgogi, and we in turn sent both soba and an slice of Kofi’s wagyu burger his way.

PW: I was just talking about this at dinner last night. One of my guests had gotten really drunk on Pernod shots with Guy Fieri years ago, and he wanted to shake Guy’s hand, but Guy told him “Fist bumps only.” Apparently he tries not to expose himself to too many germs because he has a grueling shoot schedule for his TV shows and can’t afford to get sick. But I share food with strangers every day, and often that food has been touched by cooks in the kitchen. (They’re supposed to wear gloves but … ) So I must be exposed to every stomach bug and cold that’s going around New York. Yet I don’t tend to get sick very often. I wonder if the way I eat has actually built up my immunity. Maybe somebody in your medical school will read this and let us know.

Kofi Ansong | kofi.ansong@yale.edu 

Brandon Liu | brandon.liu@yale.edu .