WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
Zea is a very useful restaurant if you have a family of people with widely disparate ages and tastes. Its offering are good across a very wide span, from hamburgers to rotisserie. It’s also strong in its salads, seafood, and sides. The moderate prices and pop-American, chain-style environments also defeat whining, while still bringing interesting food to the table.
Zea is, to quote its advertising tagline, a restaurant for American food. But it has enough New Orleans flavor that its cooking is exciting. The presence of a major rotisserie operation in its kitchen makes it of immediate note for connoisseurs of roast chicken. (They roast other meats on the spits, too.) The menu uses flavors from all over the place, with a particular bent toward Asian-style sweet-heat concoctions. The side dishes that come free with most entrees are among the most interesting food in the place. The Lenten seafood specials are so good one wishes they had them year-round. The main weakness in the menu is the predominance of farm-raised, non-local fish.
Zea is a small, mostly local chain begun by the Taste Buds–Greg Reggio, Hans Limburg, and Gary Darling. All three are gifted chefs; Greg and Gary came out of the Copeland’s organization, although their careers go back before that. They founded Semolina, sold it, and opened the first Zea in 1999. (They’ve since bought Semolina back, but are down to just one location.) Zea became wildly popular with the opening of its Clearview Mall restaurant, and it’s done well with every subsequent location.
Each of the locations is different. The one in Harahan is the smallest and most utilitarian; the St. Charles and Kenner restaurant the most spacious and comfortable. The large Clearview location is the busiest, humming right along at all hours. Mid-size restaurants in Harvey and Covington 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 they have a way of disappearing.
Asian almond shrimp.
Asian fried oysters.
Pepper jelly spinach salad.
Asian fresh tuna salad.
Almond chicken salad.
“Zeasar” salad, with or without the usual toppings.
Rotisserie chicken (with Italian seasoning, one of four options).
Rotisserie ribeye steak.
Thai-style ribs (appetizer or entree).
Twice-cooked crispy duck.
Grilled trout with pesto.
Shrimp pasta with spicy garlic and herb cream sauce.
Balsamic glazed grilled salmon.
Fried thin catfish.
Seared tuna with ginger soy marinade.
Rotisserie lamb (the Thursday special).
Hamburger (the regular one; the Wagyu burger is no big deal).
Roasted corn grits.
Red beans and rice.
Thai green beans.
FOR BEST RESULTS
Have one of the special beers, made for the restaurant by a local microbrewery. Order light: portions are large. The special seasonal menus offer some of the best food the restaurant serves.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
Too much of the fish is from too far away from local waters. Getting bread with entrees is much too difficult. Avoid the layered hummus concoction, which sounds better than it is.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Value +1
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar +1
- Hipness +2
- Local Color -1
- Good for business meetings
- Open Sunday lunch and dinner
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open some holidays
- Open all afternoon
- Quick, good meal
- Good for children
- Easy, nearby parking
- No reservations
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
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.