The Unexpected: ZINC Brasserie, Sandusky, Ohio
There are – to my knowledge – two restaurants in downtown Sandusky, Ohio that serve dinner (other than the members only Sandusky Yacht Club); that one of the two should be a top notch French restaurant speaks of both the potential Sandusky has and the problems Sandusky faces.
142 Columbus Avenue
Last year, as part of a condominium open house, we took a guided tour of Sandusky. At the time we were told that a French restaurant was slated to open soon on one of Sandusky’s main streets. This year we inquired about the restaurant upon checking in to our B&B and were delighted to find that it had opened and seemed to be doing well. Although we had already eaten, we decided to stroll down the street and perhaps have a glass of wine and some dessert.
We had been told that it was just a couple of blocks away on Columbus Avenue – and since sadly there is very little open in downtown Sandusky after dark or anytime for that matter – didn’t think we would have any trouble finding it; such was not the case, in fact, we had to cross the street and ask the folks at the State Theatre where it was. To our surprise, we had walked right by it but once we entered the small establishment (about a dozen tables plus bar seating and the next night a couple of outdoor tables) it was quickly apparent that our short search was going to be well rewarded.
We sat at the bar and were waited upon by the house manager, Mike. Mike was friendly, astute and not shy about offering his opinion when we inquired about a dessert wine; although the wine was a little sweet for our tastes, it’s nice to find a bar man who knows his stock well enough to make an intelligent suggestion. I would far rather have a difference of opinion about a wine than be left to feel my way through the wine menu or worse to think that the server either didn’t know his wine or didn’t care to take the time to make a recommendation. I also had to have some chocolate and even my “not too big on dessert” friend was pulled in once my mousse arrived.
We knew we wanted to come back the following night and (since we really wanted ZINC to be doing well) were pleased to find out that a Saturday booking definitely required a reservation. Cesare, the restaurant’s chef, came out from the back and called his wife who handles the bookings to ensure that we would have a table. It was a good thing we had thought to ask because on Saturday night every table was full and people were eating at the bar when we arrived; since we were a few minutes early, we too took spots at the bar where we ordered a shared glass of chardonnay.
On the dot at 7:30 we were guided to our table by our server, Jerry. I firmly believe that the tone of a restaurant – any business for that matter – comes from the top down and Jerry certainly reinforced that view. Like Cesare and Mike, he was friendly, knew the menu and the specials well and – most important of all – he was obviously proud of ZINC and the fare it served. I had the lobster bisque en croute (lobster bisque is always on the menu, it being en croute was a special that evening) followed by a salad with the unusual combination of blood oranges and ruby red beets. My friend had a bowl full – let me reiterate full – of mussels and chose halibut cheeks for his main course.
While we were waiting, plate after plate passed by with a bowl topped by an extraordinary puff pastry. Just as I was about to ask Jerry what that was and could I get one, my lobster bisque arrived; much to my delight, it turned out that the puff pastry was the “en croute”.
lobster bisque en croute
the picture is a little dark (hell, a lot dark)
but you can tell how much I enjoyed the bisque by the fact that
this picture is about the same size as the picture of ZINC itself
The pastry was amazing: light, flaky and – as my friend took great delight in pointing out to one who has to have skim milk and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (can anyone tell me what it is since it has no calories and no nutritional value whatsoever?) – was most assuredly made out of whole milk and lots and lots of real butter. Had the bisque beneath it been just average, I still would have been quite happy. The lobster bisque, however, equaled its cover in every way: thick, creamy, (again full of whole milk and butter) with generous bites of lobster. Not being a mussel eater, I was assured by my companion that his first course was as tasty and satisfying as mine.
Our next plates, although not extraordinary like the lobster bisque and the mussels, were delicious, well served and paired with more wine from ZINC’s healthy list. We ended the evening with a very tasty apple crumble and were surprised to find the bill to be only a tad over $100 including the gratuity. Were I an Ohio resident, ZINC would be a monthly treat. I fervently hope it (and the lobster bisque en croute) are there when I most likely return to Sandusky next year.
Therein lies the question mark: will ZINC with its talented chef, excellent food, intimate ambiance and knowledgeable staff survive another year?
Sandusky – like so many small downtowns – has so much to offer. A couple of businesses have found ways to exploit themselves. The weekend we were there the State Theatre had a sell out on Friday and a near sell out on Saturday. Daly’s and another bar down Columbus Avenue were hopping both nights as well. Down the block and around the corner a young entrepeneur runs The Hero Zone, hands down the best comic and games store I have ever been in (we went there and found cheap, exceedingly fast internet access). The Merry-Go-Round Museum is a perfect marriage of building and theme but, since last we were there, little if anything else has found its way to Sandusky. Are these businesses the building blocks upon which a Sandusky downtown revival will be built – or are they just specific destinations which are building their own clienteles but don’t imply future growth?
Block after block of downtown Sandusky is boarded up and only a few miles away sets suburban, franchise laden Sandusky for those who flock to nearby Cedar Point in the summer months. A year ago there was hope that a couple of condo complexes in conjunction with a redevelopment of the far end of downtown would jump start a revival, this year there appeared to have been little movement on either of the projects at which we looked. The lack of momentum is, no doubt, related to the national real estate down turn but high end condominiums in a downtown where we saw not one grocery store and very little other retail must be a hard sell. Still, if I were retiring and looking for a place to take a chance on, Sandusky – with its friendly residents, access to Lake Erie and ZINC – might very well be that place.