The aroma of wood burning grills. The light bouncing from brightly colored glass. An atmosphere that's both warm and sleek. A memorable experience, from A to Z. Zolon.
This is the promo prose about Zolon, "an everyday bistro," posted on the restaurant's Web site. The words are crisp and snappy, evocative and alluring. And because word pairs like "warm and sleek" get creepy if you think about them too long, let's start with the smoke.
There wasn't much of a burning wood scent wafting from the open kitchen, though the wood-fueled heat was conspicuous on the menu and the food, including a wood-grilled polenta tower.
In this era of terror alerts, a wood-grilled tower might evoke an unfortunate image, one that could potentially elicit more creep than a warm and sleek environment. The dish itself is a stack of four polenta discs singed, charred, toasted and otherwise marred by aromatic fire, which is thankfully not part of the presentation.
Virtually all Americans crave the look, feel and taste of grill-bar branding across food surfaces on everything from beef flanks to lettuce heads. Why is this? Does grilling ignite an American yearning for backyard nostalgia? Or is grilling simply a socially acceptable vent for repressed pyromania (and is burning a steak really more fun than smoking an ant with a magnifying glass)?
Yet not everyone enjoys the drama of flamed food. On a recent visit to a trattoria just north of Chicago, a woman I was dining with ordered grilled chicken breast, only she instructed the waiter to have the kitchen broil it instead of slap it on the grill. "I don't like those black stripes," she said. "They make the food look like something that has no business being eaten."
But the wood-fired polenta tower is one of the few Zolon examples that has lots of business being eaten. The yellow corn cakes are viciously blackened with coarse grill stripes that smudge, run and bleed like lines scrawled from a busted fountain pen. But they don't carry much smoke residue across the palate. All the singe seems to do is stain and stiffen the outside of the cake, not into crispness but into a thin leatheriness. Inside the cakes are moist, and the base of the tower rests on deliciously crisp asparagus stalks with dots of balsamic and pieces of onion, eggplant and bell pepper littering the spaces between while greens frill the tower layers.
The rest of the menu, which can be ordered in a "Z" full order version or the petite "demi-z" version for sampling and sharing, is more like the panko-crusted calamari, which hovers in that void between mediocrity and despair. It's a pile of strips carved from the body cavity, coated with those Japanese bread crumbs and fried into reddish golden bronze. The pieces are thick and stiff, bent and twisted like arthritic chicken fingers. They're dry and pasty, nearly inedible. Perhaps this is why this dish comes in so many permutations, as an attempt to frill up a heap of basic monotony. Slipped under the menu heading "tidbits," the calamari can be had simply with a little citrus remoulade; tangled with roasted strips of poblano and serrano peppers and ancho-lime aioli; or flurried with roasted red and cherry peppers and with a balsamic drizzle. But roasted peppers with citrus dollops don't have the horsepower to resuscitate its basic essence.
Just as the introductory Zolon description suggests, panels of stained-glass plates cocoon the entrance, though they don't seem to get any light rays bouncing. What does bounce around Zolon with savage recklessness are sound waves. They careen and crash into Formica wainscotting, graze the thick Formica tabletops and ricochet from the long futuristic and curvaceous chandelier apparatus--a wood veneered spaceship--from which dangles a lighting bar. The noise is so shrill and oppressive, it's impossible to converse, much less comprehend the specials almost shouted by the server. Not surprisingly, this static interferes with the waitstaff's ability to execute. Repeated requests for napkins and ice went unheeded. New Zealand lamb chops, ordered medium rare, arrived well done on the initial shot and medium on the second volley.
Yet while the second try was closer to the requested doneness, it did nothing to nudge the dish closer to joy. The tiny medallions fastened at the ends of the long spindly bones were moist and silky, but the flavor was so faint it was like eating a tofu cube lightly spritzed with lamb bouillon. Shaking on salt provided no relief from the flavor slumber either, as the shakers malfunctioned. It's a dual-purpose piece of equipment with a salt module on top and a peppercorn grinder at the base. Though visible in the clear bubble tip, salt crystals barely slipped through the shaker holes, requiring a vigorous shake. Unfortunately, the vigor fractured its two-in-one utility, sending a hailstorm of peppercorns bouncing over the plate and table. This wasn't so bad for the lamb, but it was hell on the Sterling pinot noir.
But most of the dishes didn't require equipment failure to drive tears. Cobb salad was just plain silly with flaccid greens and barely perceptible traces of apple-wood smoked bacon and blue cheese. There was no evidence of the tomato, celery or roasted peppers listed on the menu.
Greek salad was better, but not much. The foliage was yellow and white and tasteless with a stingy disbursement of kalamata olives and feta cheese, though the lemon-herb vinaigrette is briskly tangy.
Zolon is part of the Planet Zolon brood, a restaurant company launched by Zolon Wilkins III, who cut his teeth on a family-owned hotel reservations provider called Lexington Services. The company zeroes in on "high-energy, trend-setting concepts in unique urban locations," which seems to result in the painful "din of young girl voices...that decibel range when they're in their early 20s," as one of my dining companions pointed out. Actually, "din of young girl voices" would be far more effective marketing prose than the buzzword gobbledygook at work now. In addition to Zolon, Planet Zolon has also opened Zoe Italian nearby and brought Angeluna into its corporate fold earlier this year.
But before the family expands its burbling brood, it may want to tighten the kitchen screws. Through the noise, we were able to detect one special: a swordfish steak beautifully prepared on a bed of zucchini slivers with red and yellow grape tomatoes generously dispersed in and around the meat. But it was tough and dry. Barbecued yellowfin tuna steak was dry and dull, and the side of wood-grilled portobello mushrooms was soggy, droopy and flavorless. Yet the sautéed baby spinach with cream, cheddar and cayenne pepper was smooth, rich and perfectly prepared.
Perhaps the best entrée was the beef tenderloin au poivre in a clean, light Bordeaux demi-glace and with a tangle of crisp frites. Ordered medium rare, the meat was perfectly ruddy, bleeding juices prolifically as the tender, rich fibers were chewed.
Zolon even goes ballpark, plying versions of a house-ground hamburger and various hot dog incarnations. Tucked into a paper sleeve, the barbecued burger is thickly slathered in a sweet barbecue sauce to the point that the patty droops into mush, though the flavor is good.
Zolon is indeed a bistro rife with glass panels, slick veneers and energetic froth. But the sleekness is a little chilly, the edges are a little rough, and the lingering memories are less a pleasant shuffle through the alphabet than a constant ringing in the ears.
335 W. Third St., Fort Worth, 817-885-8440. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5-8 p.m. Sunday; 5-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; and 5-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$-$$$
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