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Thursday, February 13,2014

Boulder restaurant Zeal flaunts enthusiasm

Fresh, local and organic

By Josh Gross

One by one, the nations participating in the Winter Olympics in Sochi strolled past the cameras, waving flags and led by pretty women wearing go-go boots and enormous, garish metal and plastic cages. Poor Tajikistan only had one athlete to boast of.

And though I had no interest in the international athletic swordfight taking place, it was impossible to look away.

That’s because the rest of the newly opened Zeal is what Boulder has come to expect from sleek, Pearl Street eateries: A clean, modern design with high ceilings, plenty of light and colors as natural and comforting as the food. But with decor like that, the single, enormous plasma screen television hung on Zeal’s eastern wall was a sore thumb, wrapped in an attention-suck, inside a fish out of water.

But then somewhere in between Latvia and Venezuela, the TV flashed the words “good food changes everything.” It was a dog food commercial. But the message still held true, because the spread Zeal laid out was pretty top-notch.

Zeal’s culinary schtick isn’t anything new. Fresh.

Local. Organic. Etc. They describe it as “food for enthusiasts,” and beat diners over the head with the messaging at every opportunity. “No GMOs ever, period,” the menu boasts, thumbing its nose at punctuation and Adolph Monsanto all at once. But healthy and delicious is a schtick that ain’t broke and therefore ain’t in need of fixing. So color me enthusiastic.

The juicing craze — which still sounds like a steroid reference every time I say it — was in full effect on the drinks menu, with a rogue’s gallery of juices and smoothies representing everything from acai to yellow (no zucchini). I went for the $7 juice flight, with double-shot pours of the orange, yellow, green and red juices. The “red,” made with apple, beet and ginger, was easily the best, with a sweet, tangy flavor great for sipping.

My dining companion and I ordered some edamame ($3.50) and a Brussels sprout salad ($9) to start out. Dressed up in tahini and chunks of roasted sweet potato and garnished with pomegranate seeds, the salad was a great combination of bitter and rich, managing to at once taste healthy and savory at the same time.

Other salads on the menu seemed to offer similar formulas, pairing seeds and greens with a more substantial element like the potatoes or roasted beets. Two tables away, someone ordered the Caesar and it arrived as an unwieldy quartered wedge of romaine that looked like a challenge as much as a salad. I’m sure it was delicious, but it was the only time I’ve seen a salad you’d do better to eat with your hands like a hot dog.

The edamame, was edamame. Not much to do right or wrong there. Unless you try to put it in your eye. Which is only funny at certain college parties.

Main courses on the lunch and dinner menu are primarily bowls and sandwiches, with a small selection of plates. You can build your own bowl or choose from six, primarily Asian-influenced selections of veggies, protein and sauce over rice, noodles or quinoa. Sandwiches are served on gluten-free spelt bread made in-house, or in rice-wraps.

It’s probably safe to assume the ceramic plates are also vegan and gluten-free.

I ordered the grilled chicken diavolo plate ($12), and my companion went for the miso bowl. Normally one to loathe tomatoes, she took a shine to the charred ’maters in the bowl, which had been paired with shiitake mushrooms, seared greens and eggplant.

“There’s lots of bites, and each of them is different,” she said.

The miso bowl had a pleasant, earthy flavor, an umami that was smooth instead of overpowering.

The chicken diavolo went in the other direction altogether. Bold, bright and brassy, the roasted chicken breast was covered in a hunter-safety-orange diavolo sauce made from calabrian chiles that gave it strong, sweet and mega-spicy bite that, unlike most intensely spicy dishes, didn’t linger. It was the spicy equivalent of a guerrilla fighter, jabbing and retreating to fight another day. And at the price, I’d be glad to let it do battle with my tongue anytime. The dish was also unusual in that diavolo sauce typically tastes more in line with the Italian spice palate, being prepared as something of a spicy, creamy marinara, and Zeal’s didn’t bother with the typical sauce base, delivering a subtle Asian flair, despite the chiles still being an Italian item. On the side was a mix of roasted carrots, radishes and broccoli that didn’t bother with much in the way of spices, just let their natural flavors fly.

To close out the evening, we split a slice of vegan brownie cheesecake from Zaza and watched as hour 28 of Pootie’s Most Supreme Olympic Pageant Hostage Crisis 2014 played out on the TV.

Then the dog food commercial came on again.

Bottom line: Annoying giant vibe-killing TV or not, the eats were topnotch. I’ll go to Zeal again, and I’ll probably order the diavolo, ’cause it was that good. But next time, I’ll sit facing west.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com


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