Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Mo' Better

Zuppa makes the most of a little move.

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Zuppa's new location may be just across the street, but it represents a world of difference. Its move to the exposed brick and hardwood venue at the corner of 18th and Franklin streets (which housed Jacqueomo's for about a minute last year) signals an expansion not only in square footage but also in hours of operation, types of cuisine and mass appeal.

A return to your roots usually signifies a move toward simpler recipes and time-honored preparations, but for former corporate chefs Bryn Purser and Adam Schumm, it means stepping their game back up: reducing sauces, pan-searing fresh fish, compounding butter, layering things with goat cheese.

How does this work in conjunction with the soup and sandwich foundations of Zuppa? Exceedingly well. So well that the Bottom's best lunch is now a serious competitor in bistro-style dining as well as for the new Sunday brunch that runs the gamut from Benedict to biscuits and gravy.

After the unveiling of the Reconciliation Statue a few Fridays back, I took a group of friends to sample the new dinner entrees ($7-$22). Our server greeted the arrival of three strollers, as many toddlers and seven adults with a genuine smile, which probably wouldn't have happened across the street. There we would have taken up the entire dining area.

I was a fan of the quirky no-room-to-breathe, chef-as-cashier atmosphere of the original Zuppa, but the spacious layout is a relief, and the expanded staff means the chefs can focus on what they do best. That happens to be: grilled Meyer organic flank steak with lobster compound butter; pan-seared ahi tuna with a spicy mango chutney; a special of broiled shrimp stuffed with chevre and wrapped in prosciutto with a champagne reduction; and the list goes on.

Everything we sampled was tasty, praise that is neither trite nor lightly given. From the simple barbecue pork chop and the exotic chicken (encrusted with banana chips and glazed with a rum sauce) to the basic pasta marinara with chicken (lifted above the ordinary with the addition of jerk spice and an intense red-pepper relish), everyone agreed: Zuppa may have been known for great soup and sandwiches, but these new offerings may be what it does best.

The appetizers are an equally well-executed balance of tried-and-true and ambitious, including the ordinary but good miniburgers and crab and artichoke dip, as well as a remarkable green tomato tower layered with goat cheese and finished with balsamic reduction and basil oil.

Taking an apparent page from Comfort, Zuppa offers a choice of two sides with each entrée, or as many as you'd like for $3 each. The sautéed wild mushrooms are a must-have if you get the steak, and the chipotle corn fritters are an unusual and tasty alternative to fries. Other options range from down-home (mac and cheese) to high Italian (broccolini with grated pecorino).

The expansion of the business also includes a partnership between Zuppa and Bev's Homemade Ice Cream, begun last year, which allows patrons to get Zuppa sandwiches at Bev's and Bev's ice cream at Zuppa. This is especially a blessing to the already decadent 'smores brownie sundae and ice cream sandwich.

The soups and sandwiches at lunch remain the same, which should please the regulars. The peerless she-crab soup and lobster bisque remain perfectly paired with the now-famous Zuppa grilled cheese (think basil, prosciutto, mozzarella). They still make all the breads fresh daily and rotate seasonal specials into the lineup of regulars. If you somehow never made it to Zuppa's for lunch, relax — you didn't miss the boat.

My biggest concern about the original Zuppa was whether Schumm and Purser could keep pace with the demand for their culinary artistry, given the confines of their kitchen and the fact that each has only two hands. Now, with ample space and a full staff, the question becomes, What kind of monster have they created? I wanted to ask them myself, and on our way out, I checked with the bartender to see if either was there. She replied, "Oh they're both in the kitchen — cooking, as always." Good news.

By keeping their feet firmly planted behind the line, they should be able to handle anything. After all, a busy chef is a happy chef. Right now these guys should be ecstatic. S

Zuppa ($-$$)
101 North 18th St.
249-8831
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday brunch: 11:30 a.m. 4 p.m.

www.zuppa.org



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