Photos courtesy of Zaré at Fly Trap
There are some people in this world who live to cook for others, and chef Hoss Zaré is certainly one of them. This chef is so fired up to say hello to his guests and host them that he pops out of the kitchen constantly to check on them like they're his relatives. Dining at his restaurant, ~ZARÉ AT FLY TRAP~, is on par with being a guest in his home. It looks homey, too, with the pressed tin ceiling, vintage maps and prints on the walls, and elegant black and cream chairs with curving backs. I've always had a soft spot for this location, and it ends up Hoss has a soft spot for it as well--it was the first kitchen he ran when he emigrated from Iran in 1986.
Admittedly, when I first visited his restaurant in the fall of 2008 (he took it over that summer), I found some of the dishes to be too strongly seasoned or a bit uneven. It took me too long to return (and Hoss was quick to remind me of this), but I am happy to report the meal I had this summer was quite memorable. Downright delicious, in fact. So I'm here to testify: don't take as long as I did to dine (or return) here.
A refreshing start is the smoked trout ($11) served on a bed of cucumber masquerading as linguine, dressed in dill crème fraîche, and topped with the salty pop of trout roe. And like linguine, it takes a little negotiating to successfully spin the strands on your fork, but with one bite, the sexy texture of this dish makes it worth the effort.
The restaurant has become known for its meatballs, whether it's the famed Monday night (monster) meatball special with a meaty surprise inside (perhaps quailâ¦ or lamb chops?) that is big enough for three people to share; or the appetizer of tender and juicy pistachio meatballs ($12) in a tangy-sweet dressing of honey and pomegranate with the prickle of harissa; or the vegetarian kufteh Tabrizi ($9/$17) made with three kinds of beans, bulgur, shiitake mushrooms, and an avocado "salsa" on the side. Who knew meatballs could be prettily presented? But they are.
The beet salad ($10) is another looker, with thin carpaccio-like slices of golden beets topped with watercress, Laura Chenel goat cheese, cubes of red beets, and haunting accents of grape molasses, cumin, and mint. The flavors all came together amazingly.
A decadent salad featuring shredded bites of smoked pheasant ($12) also included figs, walnuts, red onion, and a pomegranate vinaigrette--it had a prominent sweetness that made me think it would work well as a transition after a main course.
The dish I am dying to return for is the braised duck legs ($22). The flavors were brilliant, a combination of young almonds, acidic barberries, buttery basmati rice, and the kicker: candied citrus. Genius flavor profile on this dish. My friend's spring chicken ($19) was juicy and the skin had an evenly crisp texture like way the preparation of chicken under a brick does. The accompanying side salad of watermelon and ricotta salata was a generous bonus, but I just wished the watermelon had been more ripe.
The other trademark dish is the lamb shank abgusht ($24). It's a honking piece of meat, a bit too much for me to tuck into by myself--I think it would be a fine one to share. The side of torshi (a classic Persian side dish of pickled vegetables and herbs) really brings it alive, a bright and tart accompaniment. I like how the food is feisty here, playing between sour and sweet, with exotic spices and ingredients, from the preserved lime to the tangy barberries.
I've tasted the delicious lamb burger ($14) spiked with sumac in a slider form at various events, but have never sat down to eat a full-sized portion. I wager it would be perfect to eat at the bar, especially since it comes with some champ French fries--they are ridiculously good here (my friends and I attacked the fries like jackals). The saffron aioli with the fries only seals their snackability.
You could say Hoss's food is Mediterranean, but it's more exotic than what we typically think of as "Mediterranean" here. And while the flavor profiles and ingredients have a strong Persian pedigree, I'd propose the execution is more modern Persian. In a way, I think his food follows the same approach Mourad Lahlou has applied to Moroccan cuisine to make it uniquely his, adding California flair and quality local and organic ingredients.
The portions are hefty, so if you make it to dessert, kudos to you. Marissa Churchill developed the menu, with finales like a yogurt panna cotta ($9) with white truffle honey and a candied olive biscotto that was so good I wanted to take a dozen home.
Vegetarians will be thrilled with having their very own menu here, just ask (the appetizers alone could make a hearty meal). The wine list from MS Chris Blanchard is a fun one to dive into, from the "Italian White Wine Ancient Varietals" section to "Red Wine from the Mediterranean Islands." Since Hoss's food features layers of ingredients and isn't shy on personality (kind of like the person cooking it), it's wise to recruit the staff for recommendations. You'll enjoy the attentive service--GM Mario Nocifera runs a friendly and gracious front of house.
Another big draw here is the bar. Reza Esmaili was originally presiding over the concoctions (now it's Valen West) that are divided into Mediterranean and Barbary Coast cocktails--you'll have some fun decisions to make. The drinks integrate a number of culinary ingredients, like the Minted Memory ($10), a winning combination of gin with Pimm's no.1, minted vinegar syrup, and lemon--it's an ideal start to a meal. You'll also find flavors like cardamom, bergamot honey, and orgeat making appearances. Happy hour is from 4pm-6pm, so get a side of those fries off the bar bites menu with your cocktail, seriously.
I liked the mix of guests, from groups of friends dining together to Persian families to folks hanging out at the communal table in the bar area to plenty of date duos. The room is atmospheric and romantic but still lively, like the bright punch of persimmon on the pillars. And the private side room practically begs for a birthday party--you'll be in good hands, with someone who will be thrilled you chose to throw your party in his home.
Zaré at Fly Trap
606 Folsom St.
Cross: 2nd St.
San Francisco, CA 94107