Former Chow, Baby columnist Christy Goldfinch had a well-documented crush on restaurateur Cef Zambrano, who opened his eponymous wine bar/restaurant downtown in 2007. But the tides of fortune — and the ebb and flow of road construction — are unpredictable. Zambrano began offering lunch in 2010, only to watch his effort get lost in a flood of orange cones near the convention center. Still, Zambrano Wine Cellar & Restaurant survived when many other bar/restaurants did not. Some construction is still going on — as usual — but Zambrano is taking another crack at lunch, with a menu that, unlike the streets and sidewalks of parts of Fort Worth, is very pleasing.
No matter when you drop in, your meal will likely start with an effusive handshake from Zambrano and a small complimentary plate of cheeses. The smoked gouda on a recent visit was take-it-or-leave-it (although, admittedly, it’s not gracious to be picky about a free amuse-bouche). The other cheese, a buttery Danish havarti, didn’t last long. In fact, at one point a game of “stab your dining companions with toothpicks to get to the good cheese” broke out.
[pullquote_right]No matter when you drop in, your meal will likely start with an effusive handshake from (Cef) Zambrano and a small complimentary plate of cheeses. [/pullquote_right]Thankfully, the appetizers arrived before anyone got hurt. First up was a meat-and-cheese combo. The Spanish manchego was clean, almost sweet, and it provided a nice counterpoint to gloriously rich, fatty, smoky slices of duck. The only problem was that the nearly barbecued bird was served cold, which may be appropriate but was a little off-putting. Its luscious flavor and mouth-feel only improved as the plate warmed to room temperature.
The caprese salad was solid. Thick tomato slices, fresh mozzarella, and a dainty chiffonade of basil combined with drizzles of sweet, tangy balsamic vinegar and just a little salt. Nothing fancy but a lovely palate-cleanser after the duck and cheese.
With a $24 price tag, Zambrano’s signature pizza had better be awesome. Loaded with slightly spicy Spanish ham, mouthwatering pepperoni, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, black olives, and bell peppers, it had a crust that was the perfect combo of crunchy and slightly chewy. Long story short: The pie did not disappoint. And there was plenty left to take home.
The 8-oz. filet mignon was just as delectable. Seasoned sparingly, cooked perfectly medium as ordered, topped with a hearty mushroom-red wine sauce, and paired with asparagus stalks and comfort food-style mashed potatoes, it was tender and oh-so-juicy — the mashed sopped up the sauce and juices wonderfully. The asparagus could have been a little less woody, though.
An appetizer ordered to arrive with the entrées, the seared sushi-grade ahi tuna covered in a creamy, almost lemon-flavored caper sauce managed to be both light and luxurious at the same time. It was so good we regretted not ordering the entrée version — it would have come with more of those lovely mashed potatoes, and, more importantly, it would have come in a larger portion.
The service was attentive through two-thirds of the meal. But when dessert time rolled around, other diners had piled into the place, and our server had lost interest in our table. We had to wait a good 10 minutes to order, and when we finally did, we wished we hadn’t. Neither the lemon pound cake nor the chocolate cheesecake was spectacular.
Zambrano’s deserves props for not only offering a glorious, sophisticated space for a leisurely meal and good bottle of wine but for blazing the trail for other wine bars in town. In other words, Cef’s still got it.
Zambrano Wine Cellar & Restaurant
Seared tuna (appetizer)………………………….. $13.50
Signature pizza………………………………………. $24.00
Filet mignon……………………………………………. $32.00
Lemon pound cake…………………………………… $8.00