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New Life at the Little Fishbowl on Grove Street

Climbing up the worn Astroturfed stairs of the little cylindrical building attached to the Days Inn on Grove, it's easy to wonder whether Zoya’s cuisine -- which the owners dub as "Modern American with world accents" -- can live up to its sophisticated description. Formerly the home of Midori Mushi sushi restaurant, a well-regarded labor of love by local restaurateur Gerard Dumuk, Zoya came as a welcome surprise in 2006 when it opened across from the new-ish location of Oxenrose hair salon.

Behind a heavy velvet curtain lies an upstairs dining rotunda with a 180 degree sweep of windows. Seven tables line the perimeter of this cozy room, while a small lounge downstairs offers light fare and drinks. With lusty dishes, genuine hospitality, and candlelit intimacy, first-time restauranteurs John Kim and Tracey Ballard-Kim have created a neighborhood restaurant that can easily double as a special occasion destination.

Kim, a self-taught chef, emphasizes seasonal, organic ingredients on his frequently-changing menu. In the summer months, heirloom tomatoes ($11) may be on offer: juicy red and green zebra tomatoes served with fresh mozzarella, briny black olive tapanade, and finished with crunchy specks of grey salt. A popular starter is the poke ($10), ahi tartare anointed with smoky sesame oil and punctuated with the zing of ginger and Siracha chili sauce. The wonton crisps, which are served on the side, shatter satisfyingly against the silkiness of the fish.

The entrées are passionately composed, with the sauces and sides fully sharing the spotlight, rather than fading to the background. Zoya's unofficial signature dish is the braised short ribs ($18). Succulent and falling off the bone, it is served with rich mashed potatoes and a savory sauce whose overtone of sweetness is countered by the bite of black pepper. The buttery roasted halibut ($19), draped with a lemon caper sauce, was accompanied by an intense mushroom risotto permeated with the flavor and aroma of porcini.

For vegetarians, a standout entrée (or a generous starter to share) is the goat cheese salad ($15). Encrusted with minced walnuts and aromatic herbs, the warm rounds of silver goat cheese are served with apples, shaved red onion and mixed greens -- a revelation of creamy and crisp, sweet and salty, cooling and piquant.

The most decadent option may be the Filet Oscar ($24), a hunk of seared beef tenderloin topped with sautéed crab and hollandaise. By concocting a lighter version of the sauce, and adding a raft of crisp asparagus, Kim deftly prevents this dish from going overboard (albeit deliciously so).

For dessert, the offerings are limited but vacillation-inducing, featuring irresistible endings such as warm rice pudding brûlée, cherries jubilee and Bananas Foster. The rice pudding brûlée arrives heavy with the scent of vanilla, its crisp layer of blistered sugar hidden under a blanket of pristine blackberries. Generously portioned and dense, the brûlée gives new urgency to the imperative "save room for…" The deeply caramelized and rum-slicked Bananas Foster seem to be a popular choice with diners, but poses additional quandaries: Tahitian vanilla or Scharffen Berger chocolate gelato?

At Zoya, passionate food is matched by the warm and attentive service. The owners clearly enjoy meeting and mingling with the diners, creating a welcoming atmosphere that keeps locals coming back, and visitors making the trek, to this Hayes Valley gem.

New American
Hayes Valley

Reservations Essential? Yes