No restaurant critic is on duty at every meal. We all have our modest, convenient eateries that serve as the default on days with full schedules. In many cases, this restaurant must make everyone in the family happy. Which is not the easiest criterion to search for. For my group, Zea has proven to be that all-purpose restaurant. We have been regulars there for over ten years and although there have been a few periods where we'd eaten at Zea so much that we had to take a break, when we return we rediscover what it is about it that makes it so appealing. The most surprising of these is the way Zea's menu has evolved. Lately, it's become to a large extent a gourmet bistro. Notable dishes in that realm include the sashimi-style tuna stack, Southwestern-style crab cakes, double-cooked duck with Thai sauce, and the balsamic-glazed salmon. Any of these could conceivably come from the most ambitious restaurants in New Orleans, even if the provenance of the raw materials were taken into account. This is no formula restaurant. All the above is eminently satisfying for this Gourmet Boy. Meanwhile, my wife enjoys the ribs, the wild-caught Des Allemands fried catfish, the salad with the ginger-peanut dressing, and the hummus. Until she left town to grow up, our daughter was a great admirer of Zea's hamburger, for which even the bun is unusually good. My son--a chicken's worst nightmare--keeps Zea's rotisserie chicken in mind, even after living in Los Angeles for seven years. The centerpiece of Zea's kitchen is its rotisserie. They put that to work roasting large joints of red meat--something different daily. Plus chickens, served a few different ways. All this is very good, roasted slowly while basting itself in its own juices. You can get a half-and-half meat-and-chicken platter, and that's an appealing option if you're extremely hungry. The rest of Zea's food is eclectic by the standards of the chain restaurant. This menu would have seemed very exotic a decade ago, but they've persuaded the mainstream (what else do you get in a large shopping mall?) to try and enjoy almost all of it. (However, that doesn't keep hamburgers or spinach-artichoke dip off the menu.) This is a great salad house. The spinach salad with the pepper jelly vinaigrette is the prizewinner, but all of them are at least interesting and usually much more than that. Service is spotty at Zea. The young servers are pleasant and respond obligingly to special requests, but they have a way of disappearing. The Clearview restaurant can be so busy that it takes as much as an hour to get in sometimes. The others are easier to penetrate.
It's pronounced ZEE-ah, a reference to a Greek word for life and grain. The first Zea opened in 1999 as the next concept from The Taste Buds--Greg Reggio, Hans Limburg, and Gary Darling. All three are serious chefs; Greg and Gary came out of the Copeland's organization, although their careers preceded that. Their previous restaurant was Semolina, a pasta chain that they sold right before Zea began. (They later bought Semolina back, and converted three of them into Zeas. There's only one Semolina left, although they're talking about expanding it again.) The first major instance of Zea was the wildly popular Clearview Mall location, which originally opened with its own beer brewery. That wound down, although Zea still has four craft beers made for it exclusively.) There are five Zeas in the New Orleans area, and several more elsewhere around the country.
Each of the locations is different. The one in Harahan is the smallest and most utilitarian; the Covington and Kenner restaurants are the most spacious and comfortable. The large Clearview location is the busiest, humming right along at all hours. Mid-size restaurants in Harvey and Slidell are dominated by booths in handsome, dark dining rooms. All except Harahan have very agreeable bars. The young servers are pleasant and respond obligingly to special requests, but this is the only evidence that you are dining in a chain restaurant. They occasionally miss the fine points of service..
Have one of the special beers, made custom for the restaurant by the Covington Brewery. Order light: portions are large. Lately, the restaurant has made it much easier to split or share almost everything. The special seasonal menus offer some of the best food the restaurant serves.