Chow, Baby: Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Chow, Baby’s newest crush is sommelier Cef Zambrano, the Rat Pack-suave proprietor of his eponymous wine cellar/bistro/classy hangout at 910 Houston St. and possessor of the softest hands in town. Cef’s hands smell like island spices — Chow, Baby, trying to break the habit of sticking its nose in where it doesn’t legally or socially belong, couldn’t determine specifically which spices — and his bistro smells like comfortable sophistication: leather (tall, comfy banquettes), brick (100-year-old exposed walls), wood (floors and trim), and wine (air). His pizza ($14) smells like a long-simmered deli in Madrid: pepperoni, jamon serrano, and artichokes melded with roasted peppers, red onion strings, and mushrooms. The sauce is complex, the cheese is caramelized, and the supporting crust is delightfully shortbread-dense. Even the carb-phobic won’t be leaving crescents of this crust behind on the plate.
Zambrano Wine Cellar’s main mission is the grape, of course, but foodies as well as winies will dig it. Actually the predominant clientele seems to be — let Chow, Baby stress here that its interest in human sexual displays is anthropological rather than personal — breasts. Chow, Baby had never seen so many cut-to-the-nip clingy knits in such a classy room, and apparently neither had the litter of distinguished-graying gentlemen customers clutching unlit cigars (there’s a sidewalk patio for lit ones), whose patrician noses seemed tractor-beam-pulled toward the cleavages. Chow, Baby brushed aside thoughts of truffle pigs and turned its own nose to the tomato bruschetta ($7), a basil-perfumed union of jamon serrano (Cef likes the serrano) and red, juicy-ripe tomatoes. Very ripe and juicy. Zambrano’s new panini ($8) is an Italian-style pressed sandwich of salty, supple Spanish ingredients (jamon serrano on top, of course) in abundant American-sized portions. Very supple and abundant. Chow, Baby always thought that jamon serrano was a prosciutto-like cured ham, but perhaps it’s also Spanish for “aphrodisiac.”
But let’s not discount the psycho-sexual effects of great service. You’d think the staffers were hired for their looks and charm, but in fact they know stuff. Zambrano’s stocks a couple of hundred Cef-selected wines, three dozen of them available by the glass. How to choose? Food-first Chow, Baby couldn’t stump the servers: They knew exactly which sip would match which cheese or meat nibble (offerings include chevre, white Stilton with apricot, salami, Denmark blue, and of course the Spanish aphrodisiac, $5/nibble). This encourages trust, which combined with wine lowers inhibitions, which increases exhibitions. So Chow, Baby sat at the best mating-dance observation point — the back end of the gorgeous glowing-amethyst bar — enjoying the show (there’s another hair-toss!) and a buffet of fancy meats, cheeses, and 3-oz. “tastings” ($3-$12.50). Tastings are better than bar-mating, as nose-insertion on first meeting is actually encouraged. (If cigar smell turns you on, check out the Montes Pinot Noir ’06.) And if you find a taste you like, Cef will let you take a bottle home for retail price rather than the zillion-percent markup that a restaurant would charge.
Apparently in all the years that Cef was wine manager at Del Frisco’s, he learned everything there is to know about wine (check for upcoming tastings), nothing about markups, lots about staffing, much about creating an atmosphere, and all about stunning, silky, multilayered dark chocolate ganache (the sexiest morsel in the room, $7). Plus he smells good. You see why Chow, Baby adores him so.
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