Staten Island isn’t the first place I think to associate with gourmet cooking. Dotted with obscure fast food chains and late-night diners, Shaolin is less Ratatouille and more Pulp Fiction Americana. One of these days a Big Kahuna Burger will pop up around my mom’s house and I won’t bat an eye.
A lead like that can only mean one golden thing: an exception! Take a short drive away from the mall food court, down Richmond Ave, and the hungry islander might find a curious, palatial facade glinting amongst the beige townhouses and runaway chicken packs (did I not mention? The area is a wildlife preserve of some kind.)
One does not enter the Z-One. One arrives, drinks in the high ceilings, the vague Roman vibe, remarks on the tastefully partitioned sports bar, and is immediately enclosed by the luxurious diner booths. The place is like the impressionist’s idea of Staten Island: a collision of TGI Friday’s, Mike’s Unicorn Diner and three-foot-high cookie mountains. Particularly on a Thursday night, Z-One’s gold-plated decor and al fresco balcony calls out to the curious diner like some kind of culinary oasis. Denizens of Shaolin might experience the faint, nostalgic hallucination of their high school prom at the Staaten- it’s that kind of glitz. When I visited Z-One the first time, the kitchen was nothing to write home about, but on a recent visit, I was pleasantly surprised- sort of how Marcellus Wallace must have felt when Bruce Willis stormed into the basement.
Now we come to the meat of the matter: the food. Z-One’s menu reads like Julia Child, a nice diner touch, but it stacks up. Besides the classic waffles and pancakes, roasts and pasta, I was intrigued by the modern 10 oz. burger selection, from Big Cajun Bleu to vegetarian and bison. I settled for a very PC pick, the Big Apple burger, and boy did I feel the love. Almonds, caramelized apples and brie cheese rest atop a perfectly cooked and shaped burger. I could taste each individual ingredient, and we know how brie can get lost in a burger. Mind, it’s not perfect; the curly fries could use a more liberal spicing, the coffee is swill, and the service is abysmal, which is typical for an island full of bored twenty-somethings one ferry’s ride from the city. Still, the kitchen delivers in spades, and that counts for a lot in my book.
Most restaurants, especially on the island, suffer from too much ambition and not enough grounding. Example: french onion soup tasting like dish sponge from too many croutons. Z-One wowed me with rubbery omelets and overpriced fries the last time I ate there, but these days, they’ve cleaned up. The decor and food more than make up for the staff ignoring you, and the management is decent about seating quickly. I’d love to visit on one of their many events, Mother’s Day prix fixe being the upcoming soiree, and check out the community aspect of the place.