Is Zin In?

For 15 years Cafe Elegante stood on Houston's west side as one of the last bastions of continental cuisine, turning out heavily sauced entrées and flaming desserts in a dining room filled with empire chairs.

But after determining that continental is dead and seeing that much of his clientele was not far from it, owner Zack Ateyea remodeled the dining room and pointed the kitchen even further west -- to California.

"Continental cuisine wasn't going anywhere," Ateyea says. "And it was too expensive. Heavy sauces are out. Now the trend is light, casual."

The restaurant at 1100 Wilcrest, which reopened last week, has a 20-foot-long bright red awning announcing its new incarnation: Zin, short for zinfandel, a California wine that Ateyea is betting on as the next rage.

"I wanted a name that's easy to read, easy to pronounce, easy to remember," he says. But he admits that many of his customers don't know what the name means and that his $120,000 renovation is a gamble. "My customers almost freaked out," he says. "They asked, 'Why are you changing?'

"Not too many people know about zinfandel. Some people confuse it with white zinfandel, which is completely different. But people who try red zinfandel fall in love with it. Every few years a new trend surfaces. We had merlot, then Meritage and syrah. Now it's time for zinfandel."

Ateyea believes a successful restaurant needs a distinct personality, and he thinks he has it with Zin, which has interior walls of white limestone and new tables of glossy mahogany. The bulky empire chairs are gone, replaced by lightweight mahogany-framed chairs the color of -- you guessed it -- red zinfandel.

His wine list features 50 selections of this dry, peppery wine with ripe-fruit flavors that bears resemblance only in name to the sweet and rather characterless white zinfandel. Zinfandel was developed in California, which remains the primary producer. However, Ateyea is also stocking a few bottles of zinfandel imported from France, Italy and South America.

Until four or five years ago, zinfandel was not considered especially food-friendly because of its density. But California vintners have lightened it slightly, and now it makes a happy marriage with red meats, chicken and full-flavored fishes such as salmon, tuna and amberjack. Some New American chefs have won acclaim with zinfandel sauces, and Ateyea's new chef, Pedro Gomez, formerly of Masraff's, hopes for similar results.

Ateyea, who was born in Syria, has contracted his menu and lowered his prices (most entrées fall between $15 and $18) in response to changes in America's dining habits since 9/11. Polls have shown that people are now more inclined to stay home, and when they do go out, they spend less than they used to.

The events of 9/11 "played a big part in our changeover," Ateyea says. "People are looking for something good but affordable. With our smaller menu we're cutting waste. We're depending on increased volume to make up for lower prices."

Zin's menu features seafood, lamb, aged Prime beef, pastas and a wide variety of vegetables. Ateyea says one of his most popular dishes so far is coconut-crusted salmon in a spicy papaya sauce with banana chutney and mashed sweet potato on the side. He recommends Ravenwood zinfandel to accompany it.

The new restaurant is more elegant than Cafe Elegante, whose looks had begun to fade. But Ateyea wants to avoid any sense of stuffiness with Zin. Noting that the Westside Tennis Club is just a half-block away, he says, "In tennis attire, you can still come into this restaurant."

"We had a loyal base, but the new restaurant will attract new customers," he says. "What was going good for us before, we're keeping, like the tableside Caesar salad and the flaming desserts. Kids like the fireworks. That's an important part of the show."

For Zin, the key to success will be attracting new customers while retaining many of those who kept Cafe Elegante in business for 15 years. There's no question that continental is out, but while the reborn restaurant enjoyed lively business for its opening, it remains to be seen if Zin and zinfandel are in.

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Alan Truex