DINING OUT: “We like to offer comfort food. We have larger portions, with an attractive, straightforward presentation. Our food is from different cultures, and we take the best features of each, and come up with a unique cuisine.” Chef/co-owner Mark Valenza of Za Restaurant in Pennington is shown in the popular Wisteria Garden, which offers al fresco dining in warm weather.
Za Restaurant is a special place. Its distinctive “cross cultural comfort cuisine” delights many diners, both regulars and those discovering the restaurant for the first time. Its welcoming setting and decor, featuring colors of yellow, pink, coral, and burgundy, with handsome shade panels, fresh linens, and hanging lanterns invites customers to linger over lunch or dinner.
Opened in 2006 at 147 West Delaware Avenue in Pennington (across from the Pennington Market), Za is the creation of brothers and co-owners Mark and Chaz Valenza. Chef Mark, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute (voted top of his class by the Master Chef faculty), had also worked at the Frenchtown Inn in Hunterdon County, and at Nodo and The Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton.
“It was always Mark’s hope to have his own restaurant,” says Chaz Valenza, who oversees the business end of the restaurant. While the menu is upscale, the atmosphere is relaxed and informal, he adds. “What is really unique about us is that we are not a stuffy ‘quiet’ restaurant. There is no dress code; it’s ‘come as you are’, and we want people to relax and enjoy themselves. We offer comfort food, and we want people to come and be comfortable in the restaurant.”
The cuisine, which has received consistently high praise from food critics in many publications, is an intriguing blend of wide-ranging cuisines from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and the U.S.
“All the food is cooked to order, and the ingredients are fresh. We include local products, and everything is fresh every day,” notes Chef Mark Valenza. “Our food is unique.”
Lobster is a big favorite at the restaurant, he points out, and it is available in seven different versions. Lobster comprises one third of the dinner sales, and there are also lobster salads and lobster quiches.
Another popular choice is apricot lemon quail with tabouleh and pico de gallo salsa, featuring a combination of flavors and tastes from the middle east and Latin America.
Grilled items include pork, steak, salmon, and quail. “We have the finest prime rib-eye steak,” says Chef Mark. The blackberry Berkshire pork chops, another popular choice of customers, are served over a bacon, potato, English pea, and pepper hash, finished with blackberry cognac sauce. They are hormone-free, corn fed, and farm raised.
The marsala chicken schnitzel, served with wilted garlic spinach, sauteed mushrooms, large Japanese bread crumbs, and marsala wine sauce, is a big favorite. Another favorite is sole bonne femme, poached filet of sole, served over saffron pepper rice in a broiled shallot and mushroom cream sauce.
“Our goat cheese salad is always in demand, and can be a side order or an entree with chicken or shrimp,” adds Chef Mark. “It is our most popular salad, and includes Montrachet goat cheese dredged in Japanese bread crumbs, served with mixed greens, green apple cranberry chutney, and white balsamic vinaigrette.”
Another popular salad is Arabian lentil and spinach salad, with hot cumin and coriander and green lentils, served with sauteed spinach, cherry tomatoes, curried pistachio nuts, and raisins.
In keeping with the cross cultural theme of the menu, Indian naan flat bread is served with entrees and is also included with “Zaanwiches”, the variety of sandwiches available for lunch. Ham, Swiss cheese, and sage; cheddar cheese, hot cherry peppers and sage; blue cheese and Granny Smith apples; and bacon, cheddar, with green onions are among the popular sandwiches.
In addition, “Zaiders”, a boxed lunch, featuring two grilled hamburger sliders with American cheese, caramelized onions and pickle, served with boardwalk fries or green salad, are offered. Individual tandoor oven pizzas, with fontina cheese, spicy tomatoes, and crispy tandoori naan bread are another lunch favorite. A variety of pasta dishes is also available at lunch.
Desserts are a big favorite at Za, especially the delectable chocolate souffle with homemade whipped cream, creme brulee, and key lime pie, among other delicious choices.
Coffee, tea, and a variety of soft drinks are offered, and set-ups are provided for customers who bring wine. There is no corkage fee.
Prices cover a wide range, with lunch sandwiches and salads from $7.99; boxed lunch Zaiders are $8.99. Dinner entrees are in the $20, $30, and $40s.
The restaurant, which is popular with families, couples, and singles, can seat 76 in its two dining rooms, as well as 48 outside in its Wisteria Garden area in nice weather. It is also available for private parties.
Both Chef Mark and Chaz Valenza are very encouraged with the growing popularity of their restaurant. “We have been successful even during the difficult economy and the storms we’ve had. We try to turn every customer who comes into a repeat customer. We look forward to even more people finding us. And when someone says they had a great meal with us, it makes us feel really good!
“Also, even if people can’t come all the time, we hope they will come for a special occasion, a birthday or anniversary. It will be something to look forward to.”
Reservations are recommended, and Za is open for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5 to 9, Sunday 4 to 8. (609) 737-4400. Website: www.zarestau