Years before farm-to-table became an adjective, before local ingredients were championed like discoveries, and before a simple roast chicken was as necessary as a good wine list to a neighborhood restaurant of a certain caliber, especially in California, there was Zuni Cafe. Helmed by the late, great chef Judy Rodgers for decades until her death in 2013, the unassuming San Francisco restaurant helped define California cooking as much as Chez Panisse or Spago. On Friday, Zuni celebrates its 40th birthday.
To mark the event, Zuni is embarking on something called Operation Granita.
If you spend a lot of time either at Zuni or reading about it, you’ll know that the restaurant has a few dishes that are more classic than others. The roast chicken, famously salted for three days and then served with a bread salad, is the most emblematic. Another is a deceptively simple dessert made from frozen espresso that is topped with an almost equal amount of whipped cream. (These recipes and more can be found in the pages of Rodgers’ 2002 cookbook, “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” considered to be as much of a classic as the restaurant itself.)
Owner and executive chef Gilbert Pilgram says that initially he’d thought about celebrating Zuni’s 40th birthday with global parties across three continents, but that felt like a vanity project. So instead, he contacted a dozen or so of his friends with restaurants, sent them shipments of the San Francisco-roasted Graffeo coffee that Zuni has always used and the granita recipe.
Which is why you’ll find Zuni’s espresso granita on the menus at Chez Panisse, where both Rodgers and Pilgram cooked before Zuni; Lucques in Los Angeles, helmed by chef Suzanne Goin; Babette in Stockholm; and a number of restaurants in San Francisco, including State Bird Provisions and chef Gabriela Cámara’s Cala; Cámara’s Mexico City restaurant Contramar; and Quo Vadis in London.
The exchange between Zuni and Quo Vadis, chef Jeremy Lee’s Soho restaurant, extends beyond the dessert menu. The London-based illustrator John Broadley, who has done the distinctive black-and-white Quo Vadis menus for years, did a commemorative illustration for the granita project, as well as a number of new menus for Zuni. The artwork has populated Instagram as the granitas have populated menus around the world.
“I didn’t want anyone to feel like, ‘Oh my God, I have to do this because Zuni’s turning 40’; I wanted people to do it because they wanted to,” says Pilgram. “Once you get the coffee, you just make the granita once every two weeks. Seriously, you just freeze it, then for service, you just smack it with a little spatula.”
So if you can’t find your way to that triangular 1913 building on Market Street, or to any of the restaurants with a certain granita on their menus, maybe turn to page 474 of the Zuni cookbook, brew two cups of espresso — plus an extra shot, for a birthday toast — and make your own.