Olivier Desaintmartin was but a wide-eyed country pup from Picardy when he saw his first gleaming "presse" at La Tour d'Argent in Paris. As a 16-year-old cooking-school grunt doing his weekend turn as a student-server in that luxurious bastion of old-school French gastronomy, it's easy to see how this diabolical instrument of culinary pleasure would have caught his eye.
Posed tableside, with a silver-plated wheel screwing down like a vise into a canister and crushing everything inside to a bloody pulp, it looks more like a medieval torture device than something to set a gourmand atwitter. It is definitely not for the squeamish. But once a roasted wild duck carcass and its innards are submitted to its pitiless embrace, the dark spirit that streams from its little spout becomes the essence of one of the most prized and precious dishes in French cuisine.
It's no wonder Desaintmartin, now a 49-year-old kitchen vet, snapped up a genuine antique presse on an eBay discount to become the centerpiece for his Zinc Bistro à Vins. It's a decidedly grandiose piece of haute paraphernalia for a space that's more clearly a cozy neighborhood bistro - one where, initially, Desaintmartin had even planned to install a foosball table for a more-casual Franco-bar.
I'm glad the chef, also owner of Caribou Cafe (with previous local stints at Dock Street, La Campagne, and Founders), decided to go for an intimate Parisian boîte instead. With Marais blue and hand-stenciled white letters painted on its paned facade, a pressed-tin ceiling, carved wooden bar, and a zinc counter in back dispensing French aperitifs to the 38-seat room, Desaintmartin has nailed the romantic ambience.
Uncork the Beaujolais (or better yet, a rarely seen bottle of deep and spicy Fitou from Languedoc), send out a platter of house-made pheasant-Armagnac pâté, and call in the silk-draped, arty ladies who like a nibble of something civilized before a show at the nearby Walnut Street Theatre.
Unfortunately, the food did not quite match the mood when I first ate here three years ago. But the silvery glint of that newly acquired duck press in the window caught my eye and lured me back recently for a return visit - and I'm glad it did.
With a different chef-de-cuisine, Justin Bennett, from those early days, Zinc's menu has settled into a consistent groove of homey cuisine bourgeoise. Wild mushrooms and sweet batons of earthy salsify root arrive in a buttery port glaze, sandwiched between puff pastry. Tender snails and melted leeks splashed with Pernod mingle with snappy walnuts beneath a lightly gratinéed crust. A crispy hunk of tender pork belly is posed over a mound of choucroute scented with caraway and bacon so satisfyingly tangy, I wish the appetizer had been expanded (with maybe a sausage or two) into an entrée.
And there are numerous other daily inspirations here drawn from the canon of French country cooking that are often hard to find convincingly done, if at all - such as a succulent chicken basquaise, tossed with peppers and (Zinc's embellishment) crumbled sausage, or a marvelous bowl of pristine tripe, stewed in cider vinegar, wine, and clove for 13 hours, then tossed with potatoes and finished with a splash of Calvados.
If you're looking for a steak frites, Zinc's hanger steak rendition is grilled to savory perfection. Scallops are expertly roasted with braised endives in tribute to Desaintmartin's north-country home. Lamb shank is deeply braised, then served in a crock cassoulet-style, with little white cocoa beans beneath a dusting of bread crumbs. Flour-dusted skate meunière gets ringed with a throwback red-wine beurre rouge.
Zinc dabbles only lightly in full-on luxuries, like the truffled risotto jeweled with moist lobster that gets topped decadently with an egg yolk. For the most part, though, there's an overall lack of pretense to the cooking and service, which is personal, but also often undermanned to the point where vacated tables linger unbused.
The kitchen had a handful of minor misfires, too. A rubbery, overbrined pork chop drenched in borscht-like beet sauce. A thick slice of grilled veal liver that was just a shade overdone. A cheese selection that was adequate, but also pretty ordinary given the options these days. No, Zinc isn't extraordinary, really, by most true bistro standards (like, say, Bibou.) It is, however, exactly what the French call sympa - short for sympathique, meaning "pleasant" - a term of endearment for those spots that simply feel at ease with their modest neighborhood ambitions.
It's all the more reason Desaintmartin's lavish silver duck presse took me by surprise. Given the going rate of about $175 for the pressed duck at La Tour d'Argent these days (each one numbered, and now exceeding a million served), Zinc's fee for the two-course, two-person order-ahead feast - $75 - is a relative bargain.
It is also (at least part of it) one of the unique food experiences in town. When we arrived, the presse was already poised and waiting beside our table. When the lanky Bennett appeared - his blue sweatband branded with a Nike swoosh, not Michelin stars - he went to work on the lightly roasted wild bird, carving-off the still very rare breasts, sending the legs back to the kitchen for further cooking, and placing the carcass into the silver capsule.
Turn away now if gore offends you, because when the chef gives that shiny wheel a spin, the crimson juices will flow. Into the sauce pot, flambéed with Cognac, then simmered down for the final sauce, it suddenly transforms, thickening into a deep, dark, primal hue - enriched even more when the breasts finish cooking inside.
Sliced down onto a plate with potatoes (cooked, mais oui!, in duck fat), it was one of the most vivid and pure expressions of duck I've ever savored - pleasantly gamy and decadently rich.
It's a shame our second course brought legs that were slightly chewy from their finishing turn on the grill, even if they were set over a lovely carpaccio of beets. But it was a small complaint given the magnificence of that first course. And more important, while Zinc may still be a far cry from the temple of luxury that is La Tour d'Argent, that silver presse is responsible for bringing me back to rediscover a sympa little bistro that's finally coming into its own.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Year in Bells. Contact him at 215-854-2682