For Richer or Poorer
There are many things to love about Zimm's Little Deck. Oddly — for a Cajun restaurant with an executive chef from Louisiana — the po-boys aren't one of them.
Perhaps the fact that Zimm's employs an executive chef who's rarely seen on premises is one of the problems. Chef Jeramie Robison has been busily improving and modernizing the menu at Cinq, the new restaurant in La Colombe d'Or that's the crown jewel in the Zimmerman family's Montrose empire (which also includes Zimm's Martini Bar), leaving the kitchen at Zimm's to its own devices. But great Cajun food rarely requires overly fancy fussing around with, so it would stand to reason that perhaps the po-boys would be better without interference from an executive chef type. Even a young one. Even a Louisianan.
Whatever the reason, I cannot fathom how Zimm's can serve a barely six-inch-long "rich boy" on soft, squishy, slightly gummy, totally inappropriate bread and charge $15 for it. It would almost be offensive if not for the obvious care that's been taken with it, awful bread notwithstanding. Zimm's and Chef Robison have clearly put a lot of effort into the menu here, and I do love the idea of having "rich boy" and "po-boy" sections (as much as I don't love the inflated prices in either).
And on my very first visit, when Zimm's first opened, a Moroccan-inspired lamb sandwich off the "rich boy" side of the menu wowed me: The tender lamb had the slightest tinge of game still playing on the edges, thickly infused with turmeric and ginger and coated in a tangy aioli that made the lamb sing. Punched up with peppery leaves of arugula, the lamb and the sauce were more than enough to make me overlook the bread that night.
Other rich boys on Zimm's menu had me eagerly awaiting return visits: Le Grand Cochon with pulled pork, another lamb sandwich called a Casablanca, a Lafitte with fried oysters and beef tenderloin. But when I tasted my dining partner's Huey Long — a rich boy filled with barbecued shrimp — it was like glimpsing the future. And it wasn't a bright future.
While the barbecued shrimp were perfectly passable, if forgettable, his rather puny rich boy contained very few of the actual crustaceans and was far from dressed, a trend that only continued with further visits. If the kitchen works so hard crafting these cocktail sauces and aiolis from scratch, why skimp on them instead of allowing them to shine?
Luckily, we'd ordered a dozen Gulf oysters along with our sandwiches, and my dining companion took refuge in their buttery, briny embrace while I polished off my rich boy. It was a bit of a shock, however, to get the bill later and find those oysters were $17 for a dozen. Considering you can get the same oysters — shucked with the same care and skill — down the street at Danton's for $9 a dozen, I was unimpressed with Zimm's markup, to say the least.
But while Zimm's doesn't necessarily have it together on the poor/rich boy front, I still found myself looking forward to return visits for three things: the small plates, the cocktails and the inviting atmosphere.
The restaurant is entirely new, built from the ground up on Richmond just off the spur. The Zimmermans took care to make it look as authentically French Quarter-esque as possible, something that was noticed with affection by my Cajun friend, Jason, when I took him for dinner one recent night. The patio area lines a pétanque court, which I expect to be in full use this summer. A fireplace outside attempts to make things cozier in the winter (although there's no seating next to the fireplace, which I found very odd). And while people have complained about the noise coming off Richmond when seated outside, I question which patios they usually frequent — this stretch of Richmond is almost as quiet as you'll get in Montrose.
At the long, smooth, veined marble bar inside, you can perch on a stool while watching oysters being shucked or sandwiches constructed in the open kitchen. It's a very cozy — if very upscale — feeling that's strongly enhanced with a cocktail in hand. The cocktail program here was developed by Anthony Montz, formerly of Hearsay, and while he's now moved on to other projects, the drinks are still made skillfully and creatively by bartender and front-of-house man Cory.
On a recent blustery evening, a pear-clove sour — a wintery twist on a whiskey sour — warmed me up as I awaited my food with Jason. He was annoyed that the cocktail menu listed a "Nawlins Collins" as an option ("No one from New Orleans says or spells New Orleans like that," he huffed), but ordered one anyway and ended up loving Zimm's twist on a classic Tom Collins. A Sazerac on another visit was ruined by an abundance of bitters that turned the cocktail a rosy orange-pink color, but was made up for by a Hurricane that was heavy on the rum and packed a serious punch. At the very least, Zimm's is a wholly pleasant place for a cocktail and catching up with friends.
The small plates, too, are conducive to this. Croque Monsieur hushpuppies don't taste much like cornmeal, but they do taste of honey ham and gooey Swiss cheese. Pate is slightly chunky, country-style stuff that's easy on the garlic and imminently wolf-able. The macaroni and cheese served in a tiny cast-iron skillet is a bit grainy (Zimm's should really make a béchamel first for its cheese sauce), but well-seasoned and tasty, with a bread-crumb crust that's made alluringly crispy in the oven. The gumbo was the only real disappointment, its "roux" incredibly light and tasting, as Jason put it, "like chicken broth" except for the nicely peppery andouille sausage chunks it contained. Cory steered us away on one visit from the breaded clam strips in the small plates section, claiming that the clams are too small and are overwhelmed by the breading. I appreciated this, especially when he recommended the fresh calamari instead.
Zimm's doesn't have a single freezer on site, so you can be assured that all the seafood you're eating is quite fresh. That calamari was a revelation: incredibly tender, nearly melting in my mouth. If you've only had that awful, rubbery calamari at cheap chain restaurants, get thee to Zimm's and see what squid should really taste like. The basket is served with two of the restaurant's best sauces — a creamy lemon aioli and a green Tabasco mash sauce with chunks of green chiles throughout. I would love to see these sauces on some of the po-boys, as they're clearly not given the same consideration as the rich boys are. Along with better, crustier bread, it would make masterpieces out of them.
Those po-boys aren't much cheaper than their rich boy counterparts, coming in at $12 for a fried shrimp or fried oyster and $9 for a roast beef. And although the seafood is fresh and nicely battered, the po-boys come underdressed and dry. Ironically, the one po-boy I got that was dressed correctly contained so much overly sugary cocktail sauce that I could eat only one half.
Although the po-boys (and the rich boys) are small, they do come with house-made potato chips and dill pickles that are made after Chef Robison's father's recipe. On my first visit, those potato chips were an interesting side item, perhaps too thickly cut and too well-done, but inoffensive. On return visits, it was clear that the fry oil used to cook them was stale and dirty. Not one of my dining partners liked them.
Luckily, the pickles remain as wonderful as on that first visit, liberally flavored with fresh dill and a light touch of vinegar. The result is that they still taste and crunch like cucumbers, a refreshing move away from overly pickled vegetables that almost leave a film on the palate.
If only those sandwiches would just come up to par, too. A recent visit left me thoroughly disappointed in both my Grand Cochon and my dining companion's Casablanca rich boys. The pork in my rich boy was woefully underseasoned, tasting like a pork butt that someone had thrown into a crock pot with no seasonings, then shredded and put between two pasty lumps of bread. The red cabbage slaw beneath it was equally bland. My dining companion's Casablanca was slightly better, but her lamb tasted mostly gamy — where was that skillfully and subtly seasoned lamb I'd tried back in November?
Thankfully, we put our sandwiches aside and found refuge in another area of the menu that Zimm's does get right: desserts. A shared skillet of Valrhona chocolate bread pudding and a glass of Tempranillo later — served in unfussy tumblers that fit the cozy vibe here — we'd nearly forgotten about the sandwiches and were already debating pétanque teams for the coming summer.
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