Lakeside's new Zed Café must be suffering from an inferiority complex; it offers only eight tables with yards and yards of empty space all around. Or maybe that's just its Zen-infused design, and I'm too blinded by Western cash-spawning, table-crowding paradigms to appreciate the simplicity of its emptiness.
But how, then, to explain the hair salon attached to it? Is the café an extension of the salon or the other way around? There's a gaping entrance between the two, where if you're unlucky enough to sit at a table up front, wafts of bleach and other pungent cosmetological products occasionally make their way into the restaurant. The two businesses may in fact be one in the literal sense, but they need to put up a nonmetaphorical wall between the two to keep the smell out.
Or perhaps Zed is suffering from a grandiosity complex. The earthy red walls, bamboo tabletops, black steel chairs and pithy philosophical quotes are a match for a menu that promises "all our ingredients are free-range, natural and organic wherever possible." Yet, like the chemical smells from the salon next door, the phrase "wherever possible" gives one pause. Our waiter was unsure of which ingredients were, in fact, organic, and implicit in his ignorance was an assumption that when you eat at Zed, you need to park your mistrust at the door.
The glacier-like speed of the service must be in keeping with its Eastern philosophy as well, because there is ample time for meditation while waiting for a glass of organic wine or a salad that may arrive before the entrée, or perhaps afterward. The crispy calamari, when it arrives, is tender, greaseless and slightly spicy, but unfortunately too dry to enjoy without an accompanying dipping sauce. The zucchini fritters are far better large and creamy, but difficult to split among several people without the promised appetizer plates. Lamb chops arrive raggedly cut, thin and somehow desiccated despite their pink interior. Better is a small (or are the plates too large?) well-seared hanger steak, oozing meaty juices into the somewhat gluey truffled mashed potatoes. The simple marinara has a subtle, sparky bite, and although rigatoni was expected, the al dente linguine underneath was acceptable.
There's a lunchtime vibe about the place that dinner service fails to camouflage completely. Maybe it's the concrete floor. or maybe it's that our waiter took so long we had to pay the check at the register, the way you do at diners. If not for the slowness of the service at lunch as well, Zed might have a lock on the noonday vegetarian business crowd to whom it seems to cater.
The Zen garden burger is stuffed thick with a cumin-perfumed millet-and-chickpea concoction that has a slow, sweet burn, topped by the only ripe tomato I've seen anywhere in months. Too bad it arrives lukewarm with just a couple of yam fries to fill out the plate. Likewise, the roasted vegetable panini is not heated all the way through. The pesto chicken panini, although slightly warmer, is made with a pesto that, oddly, tastes basil-free, but the aioli makes up for a lot with a good garlicky slap-down.
Side salads are stingy, and entrée-priced salads aren't a whole lot bigger. I love the addition of goji berries to a typical winter salad of apples and walnuts. Its arrival after my sandwich, along with what only can be described as a soup comprised of chopped, canned tomatoes with a glug of olive oil floating on top, truly redefines the meaning of the word appetizer.
Dessert does come at the end of the meal, given that it's ordered when the rest of the food is eaten. Carrot bundt cake is moistly sweet but needs a little punching up with more spices (and cream cheese icing is always, always welcome); the baklava is done better elsewhere; and the flourless chocolate cake would be better described as a chocolate pté in the shape of a cowpat.
Yet I like Zed Café, and I like its aspirations. I hope when they figure out how to get the food to the table at the right temperature and in the right order and seal up the entrance to the salon, they'll send me a telepathic invitation to come back. They have the right idea; they just need to figure out how to execute it. S
Zed Café NS $$
5109 Lakeside Ave.
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Thursday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.