As we tried to avoid sun blindness thanks to ZEA WoodFire Grill's ineffective window treatments, my gaze landed on the largest, glossiest, blackest toupee I had ever seen. It sat suspiciously still upon the head of a beefy gent in a pale blue sport shirt chomping on an enormous piece of meat. I had no idea at the time just how much that raven-hued rug would represent my time at ZEA.
The restaurant originated in New Orleans, the love child of three chefs aiming to reflect the "culture of Louisiana" in their cuisine. Funny thing is you'd never know that if the restaurant's Web site didn't tell you. The few New Orleans-inspired dishes are overshadowed on a confusing menu that rivals Sybil in personalities. On my first visit, during a steady but not crowded dinner service, dishes with Thai seasonings, Mexican root and Italian pesto came before the first hint of the South (in an unassuming side dish of roasted corn grits). Overcompensating for a lack of New Orleans' soul? Just try the international flavor toupee by ZEA.
But Cajun roots weren't all ZEA was covering up. The Thai ribs were by far the most enjoyable portion of my first date with ZEA. The tangy tongue-tickling sauce clung to the meat nicely, and the dish was delivered quickly by a food runner more knowledgeable about the menu than my own server (he actually made suggestions based on what we'd asked). The rib meat, however, was not exactly tough but all too happy to stay on the bone until coaxed off. The ribs' tablemates, duck empanadas, were crispy and flaky on the outside but hid a globby mess the consistency of bean paste. I referred to the menu, still lying on the table despite my entrée order having been taken, and confirmed that yes, said bean paste was to contain some manner of duck. What manner, I'm still not sure.
My dining companion, admittedly finicky because of pregnancy, found her entrée of almond shrimp salad to be largely average--offering little zest and one significantly suspect shrimp. Meanwhile, our pesto-crusted rainbow trout was inedible. Generic pesto aside, the fish itself was incredibly salty and oddly fishy. "It's like it was caught in a saltwater aquarium that was never cleaned," my dinner mate offered after taking a bite. Try as it might, that pesto couldn't mask such an aquatic disaster. Yet another unsuccessful toupee. Our server returned, not to refill our empty glasses but to make a dessert suggestion: "Everyone orders the old-fashioned chocolate cake and loves it!" Ah, would we find a delectable dish at last? Not quite. The triangle of devil's food and cream cheese-chocolate icing layers came paired with a clear juice glass of milk. In all honesty, we have an aversion to bovine fluids. Our thought was that this was an odd plating, a distraction, but it proved to be quite necessary; the cake was dry with a day-old grocery air that tried desperately to hide beneath the thick, chocolate caulk. Chocolate cake should be an easy A, and here the pregnant lady craving it couldn't stomach more than two bites.
When the bill came, it was obvious ZEA WoodFire Grill was proud of their food. A bit too proud. But we'd give them a lunch to secure their piece...or at least try for a convincing comb-over.
Though sparse, the Sunday lunch crowd was replete with polo shirts and bottle-blond locks on our second visit. For a restaurant whose décor is young and modern (and whose soundtrack of the Raconteurs, Switchfoot, Hoobastank and others enjoys residence on KDGE), ZEA's clientele is anything but hip. Mostly families and older businessmen dined during our visits, so the establishment is either aiming for the wrong demographic or there's a youth-recapturing movement we've not heard of.
This time, we landed in a booth with no blinding sun but in the path of a chilling wind for which there was no discernible source. On a more positive note, our server was genuine in his suggestions and conversation.
We opted for the "best hummus [he's] ever had" (the Mediterranean hummus supreme) and Asian almond shrimp to start. The chickpea purée, swimming in olive oil, was topped with kalamata olives, chunks of tomatoes, roasted garlic cloves, raisins and basil. The pita wedges were room temperature. The dip itself was lackluster, comparable to store-bought varieties. We preferred its bruschetta-like adornments to the paste itself--the exception needed to prove our toupee theory. The shrimp won over my two dining companions with light, crispy batter, but the thin, unidentifiable brown sauce the shellfish lounged in turned our tongue into a saltlick.
For entrées, we opted for the restaurant's apparent specialty. "Woodfire" and "grill" both point toward meat, so we aimed to correct our previous mistakes with extreme carnage. We tucked into sweet and spicy rotisserie chicken only to find an extreme lack of flavor beneath the taut, sauced skin. Parts of our half-bird were dry while others were juicy but remarkably bland. Another misleading coating. In contrast, the accompanying sautéed corn was overly seasoned--peppered, buttery gravel mingling with bits of limp onion. Skillet corn gone real wrong.
Our cohort fared better with the hickory-fired fillet and baked sweet potato. Though the steak was simply cooked (thankfully) and tender, it was rare/medium-rare despite an order of medium. (Any chef worth his salt should have mastered the thumb test his first week on a line.) The sweet potato was heavily masked with cinnamon but inoffensive on the whole.
A big disappointment was the barbecue chicken and rib platter. Choosing a dry rub for the ribs but sticking with the barbecue rotisserie, our food fellow was looking forward to serious meat therapy. He was thwarted. The dry rub may as well have referred to a massage technique; the ribs (once again, not exactly tough but certainly not tender) were flavorless. Even the taste of pork was faint. The chicken's barbecue sauce was a sweet, kin-to-Kraft variety that shrouded yet another inconsistently cooked fowl. The hand-cut fries, however, were top-notch, firm and crisp and simply seasoned with salt.
Unfortunately, both the fries and the sweet potato dishes joined us for dessert. We were eventually able to obscure our view of them by situating them behind the sweeteners, salt and pepper. Center stage yet again was the chocolate cake, after our server gave an especially rousing suggestion, and we also optioned the ZEA fruit crackle of the day. Once again paired with that inexplicable milk, the cake was considerably moister this go-around, but the spoons we were given (for cake?) made it an architectural liability. The crackle, peach, was served a la mode and was obviously not made with fresh fruit. The copious crumble made it difficult to find the four peach portions we were allotted.
As we finished dessert, a large and rowdy party was seated, and it became evident that ZEA's décor lacks enough fabric or wall hangings to soak up noise, causing the dining room to erupt at times in a resounding din not unlike canned laughter. At this point, we didn't need to experience any more fakery. Having already been drowned in sauce and various other wool-pulling, warm and dampened laughter could have put a slightly positive spin on the meal, but the frenetic, tinny laugh track just aggravated.
Overall, we were stupefied by experiences that danced back and forth between mediocre and just plain bad. ZEA needs to pare down the menu and offer straightforward dishes that celebrate and enhance their ingredients, not cover them up. As it is now, ZEA is that beefy gent with sauce dripping from his fingers and a horribly obvious toupee covering what might be a lovely head. 8100 Dallas Parkway, Plano, 972-712-7077. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$