Brunch at Zelko Bistro: A Salty Experience

I have dreams of quitting my corporate job and opening a restaurant of my own. If that dream were to ever become a reality, I'd want my concept to be like the one for Zelko Bistro. I love everything from the theory behind the food -- sustainable, organic and local -- to the space itself, a restored 1920s bungalow in the Heights. So, I really wanted to love the food, but sadly my first experience wasn't as ideal as I'd hoped it would be.

Even with all the praise the restaurant and Chef Jaime Zelko have received, strangely enough, I had never been there; when I was invited to brunch with some friends, I jumped on the opportunity. Walking into the restaurant is like walking into someone's home -- it's cozy, welcoming and bright. I appreciate the little nuances of the space, the small garden off to the side of the restaurant outside, the mason jar lights that hang in the small bar area right as you walk in, the open kitchen and the comfortable leather booths that line the entire wall. If only the food and service that day had equaled the setting.

The brunch menu features your standard brunch items -- eggs, French toast -- but also items from the lunch and dinner menu, like the much-talked-about Boss burger and the Captin's Chicken. We each ordered something different so that everyone could try a bit of everything.

As I settled into my chair with my fresh cup of Katz Coffee, I noted service wasn't unfriendly but it wasn't very personable, either. And in such a cozy ambience, for some reason it seemed colder. We went long stretches of time without seeing our server, and the food took an unreasonably long time considering it wasn't very busy.

The Shrimp and Grits ($16) hit the table, and the smell of white cheddar filled the air; succulent shrimp, laid on top of the mound of fluffy polenta, were sprinkled with bits of bacon, and soy agave nectar was drizzled around the polenta. I took a large spoonful of the polenta and savored the creaminess -- I was in heaven. But my next bite, of shrimp, was a rude awakening. The shrimp was grossly oversalted; it would have been inedible if not paired with the cheesy grits. The soy agave nectar also added an overpowering brininess, so I did my best to avoid it.

The ground lamb in the Bah-Hah Tacos ($14) was also overly salted, so much so that the cumin could barely be tasted. The cool raita salad and sweet plantains were helpful in adding a little sweetness to the dish. The Boss burger ($12), on the other hand, was underseasoned and a little bland.

There were saving graces to the meal, though: The Captin's Chicken ($15) is as good as everyone says. The coating was sweet, the frying technique left no grease and the yogurt/buttermilk soak rendered the breast meat very juicy and tender. The fries -- skinny, crisp fries topped with parmesan and garlic herbs -- went very quickly at our table.

I'd like to try Zelko again, as I believe the erratic seasoning of the food is most likely a one-off. I will be back to try more of Chef Zelko's comfort food in this lovely space.

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Minh T Truong