Zinc, Charlottesville VA

I’ve had a hard time writing something about this restaurant, I wanted to really like it, and i like many parts of it but the overall experience was just plain odd.  But let me start from the beginning, after passing this place many times I finally stopped in for dinner on a Monday nite.  I had read notihng about it, so my initial expectations were from the building and the trendy bar at the entrance.  The building looks to be a converted service station/garage with the service doors still in-tact and exposed rafters, ducting etc.  My initial expectation was modern trendy food, think simple arrangements and fresh ingredients (Alice Waters-esque) instead the food is in the spirit of a French bistro.

So that’s the first surprise, but that’s fine, they wanted to preserve the original charm of the building instead of tearing it down or over decorating it.  The menu is decidedly French bistro, you can find it on their website.  We ordered the terrine, rabbit in mustard sauce and the onglet (strip steak? wasn’t sure of the cut) with fries and a separate side of brussel sprouts.  There is no free bread, it’s $3 for a bread basket and salted butter, i don’t have a problem with this per se, but it can introduce wierd issues (more in a bit). 

When we ordered, i looked at the prices and having eaten in C’ville a few times now i expected a normal amount of food, which is to mean an appetizer is for 2 and an entree is suited for one.  Since the sides were priced separately i assumed the portions were small enough to warrant getting a side at all.  This was the second surprise, while the atmosphere and aspirations are French bistro the portion sizes are definately Americanized, the terrine was quite a lot for 2 people and it did not come with enough bread.  We realized this the moment it arrived and resigned ourselves to ordering a bread basket to finish it off.  Our server noticed this and offered to bring us bread.  I think she brought us more free bread then came with our terrine. 

As a funny aside the table behind us ordered some mussels and asked for bread, in this case the server gave her the spiel about having to pay for bread, the table eventually relented and the bread basket is barely enough for two and if you’re eating mussels i think the portion would be too small.  This is my first pet peeve, the whole buying bread thing just rubs me the wrong way.  If you can’t afford to give free bread then at least work the price into entree items that normally are served with bread!  One of the biggest draws of mussels is the broth, which time has shown is bested soaked up with some crusty bread.  If you’re doing this for business reasons, there’s something to be said for maintaining the restaurant experience, the prices are reasonable enough to add $1-2 to cover included bread. 

The whole pricing thing throws me for a loop when the entrees arrive, the portions are huge.  When you look at the pricing (rabbit $15 + $3 for sprouts, steak and fries for $19) they are not so high that i expected huge portions.  The portions in C’ville tend to be on the big size, but i think that’s partly due to the large number of places focusing on southern themed food.  In a french bistro i’d expected french bistro sized portions.  If the portions were 1/2 the size, i would’ve felt they were a little expensive, if they were also 20% cheaper i would not have had a problem with portion size or pricing at all.  The large portions just made me feel like they are grasping at straws by shoving out more food to justify the price tag instead of relying on the food—which is actually pretty good.  Notice how i spent all this time talking about the experience instead of the food!  The rabbit was a bit too heavy with the mustard sauce, it came served in a large bowl of noodles also covered in the sauce.  I would have prefered a lighter hand with the sauce.  The brussel sprouts were actually quite good but the two was just too much, i would’ve liked the option of two sides with my entree and just smaller amounts of them.  The steak was cooked well, though undercooked to what was requested, the fries were nice and salty but again the portion was too large.  Either entree could easily be split for two people. 

I really want to like this place, in many ways they are really trying hard.  The service staff is friendly and really wants to help.  They really want to be part of the community with student discounts (buy 1 entree, get 2nd for half price).  The food is solid, but the wierd pricing quirks just leave me dissappointed. 

I’m going to give them a second chance at some point, maybe going with four people so we can order 2 entrees and get the discount.  Using this strategy i think you can eat for $15 per person!  That sounds too low to me for a restaurant to survive, but if they are going to do such odd things with the pricing and portion size they have to deal with people working the menu to their advantage. 

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