Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, July 30, 2003
Zolon\r\nPanko-crusted calamari $5/demi\r\nCobb salad $5/demi\r\nBeef tenderloin $11/demi\r\nSugar pie $5
Mighty Mites

The tapas at Zolon pack a powerful punch.



335 W Third St, FW. 817-885-8440. Mon-Thu 11am-11pm, Fri-Sat 11am-1am, Sun 11am-9pm. Credit cards: all major.

he first sighting of a new tapas restaurant (Hui Chuan Sushi, Sake and Tapas) made me think “novelty.” The second sighting, this one of Urban Tapas in Colleyville, made me think “coincidence.” With the recent debuts of My Martini in Arlington and Zolon in downtown Fort Worth, tapas restaurants now have all the makings of a trend.

As a food writer (and fanatic), I’m thrilled that the concept has taken off. Firstly, tapas are empowering —you’re likely more willing to experiment and order something you’ve never tried before because you don’t have to commit to an entrée-sized portion (and price) of the new dish. Another thing — a plate of various tapas is cheaper than a full entrée, so eating out more often is economically viable. Lastly, the tapas restaurant is the perfect style of eatery for a date; the food begs to be shared. (This type of restaurant is also great for the theater set — small entrées aren’t likely to cause a Bass Hall patron to drift into food-induced drowsiness during the second movement of a symphony.)

Zolon straddles the middle of the road by serving tapas-sized items called “demi Z” or full-sized portions called “Z.” It’s also one of the cheapest “upscale” restaurants in the city — if you’re not a linebacker or really big eater. Ordering four demi-Z dishes, dinner for two with wine, will cost less than $50. For food of this caliber, it’s a deal.

But Zolon won’t succeed because it’s cheap. It’ll pull ’em in because the food is wonderful, inspired even, and the restaurant is a terrific addition to the new mix of downtown dining spots.

I like Zolon because even when the kitchen fucks up, the results are memorable. A 5-inch stack of panko-breaded and fried calamari that my guest and I ordered was cold but delicious. Strips of squid were arranged like pick-up sticks, drizzled with an ancho chile aioli, and topped with roasted poblano peppers — and not a hint of grease. Panko crumbs were the key ingredient. Regular bread crumbs wouldn’t have held up as well as this Japanese breading known for its forgiving nature.

In two visits, I tried about two-thirds of the menu, and, though there were dishes I didn’t fancy, nothing was boring or offensive. Take the two-potato leek soup: The version I got had a surprise in the middle, a potato ball stuffed with baked potato fixings — cheddar cheese, chives, butter, and sour cream. I thought it was overkill, but damn if I didn’t smack my lips as I lapped it all up.

Most simple dishes, like creamed spinach, are elevated at Zolon. Adding cheddar cheese and cayenne pepper to spinach is genius — and quite tasty. But sometimes the simple dishes go awry: The white corn chowder was thin, like fresh oyster chowder, and for flavor relied on spices, not just cream. This chowder suggested curry and Tabasco and came with two mesquite grilled shrimp on a skewer, suspended over the bowl like little damsels in distress.

Both the Cobb and Euro salads were impeccably fresh and dressed with one super-snappy ingredient each. The Cobb used Maytag blue cheese (a robust, creamy blue cheese developed in Iowa). Greens, crisp apple-smoked bacon, and tart mustard vinaigrette completed the salad. If the Cobb is heroic, the Euro is achingly hip. Radicchio and endive lettuces were dressed with capers, sun-dried tomatoes (oh so 1997, but still tasty), fried artichoke chips, and the “It” boy of cured meats, jamón serrano. (Serrano ham is Spain’s answer to prosciutto. This leaner meat is heavily smoked, with a lovely smooth texture.)

The tenderloin came with three dipping sauces: teriyaki, chimichurri (an olive oil-based sauce with fresh herbs such as parsley and oregano), and thin barbecue sauce. The meat was so tender and perfectly cooked that the only sauce that flattered the flavor was chimichurri, perhaps because the beef-loving Argentineans know that their favorite condiment brings out the salty-sweet glory in meat.

Fans of crisp, cracker-ish pizza will flip over Zolon’s ’zza. Just thinking about No. 5, the sliced tenderloin pie, makes my salivary glands cramp with gustatory anticipation. Each flavor — bitter arugula, buttery tenderloin, strong blue cheese, and sweet mellow balsamic vinegar syrup — asserted itself like part of a well-coordinated outfit of plaids and stripes. (Although the No. 6 pizza — of asparagus, jamón serrano, and mashed-olive tapenade — was well-executed, it lacked the flavor and textural punch of No. 5.)

My guest and I ended one visit with an edible endearment called sugar pie. It was a deconstructed cobbler with tart (and slightly undercooked) berry coulis and ice cream, topped by a Whopper-sized puff of pastry.

The chi-chi décor of warm wood and a dropped ceiling is gorgeous. But you can’t help but get the feeling that Zolon doesn’t want you to linger over your tapas too long. This makes sense — since most diners are ordering inexpensive half-entrées, the restaurant must generate a lot of diners to turn a profit. If there’s any justice, Zolon will do just that.

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