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February 16, 2006

photo of rack of lamb cut into chopsTalk of the Table heading

Zhao's World

story and photos by BOB DORAN

Zhou Zhao didn't really plan on operating a four-part restaurant when she took over the Ritz building in the summer of 2003. The original plan was to turn the former nightclub into a sushi bar, then add teppanyaki, the Japanese stir-fry cooking style popularized by restaurant chains like Benihana.

"We were just thinking of sushi and teppanyaki, that was our main goal," she explained, taking a break from the bustling business. "But the owner told us he had two places sharing the kitchen, so that's how we decided to add the Cin Cin side. Since we lived in Italy we know Italian food -- we like Italian food, so that's why we opened an Italian restaurant."

Born in Beijing, Zhao met and married George Ellis, son of a British father and an Italian mother. After living in England briefly, she and her husband moved to Italy and lived there for almost 10 years.

The couple wrote a cookbook together, The Healing Cuisine of China: 300 Recipes for Vibrant Health and Longevity, and, as she noted, since it's difficult to find publishers for English language books in Italy, they moved to the United States, settling in Humboldt County where they had friends. George and Zhao's publishers have asked for a book about Italian cooking with the working title The Healing Cuisine of Italy.

One might think she would have started a Chinese restaurant, but she said "We have a partner, she lives in Oregon, in Grant's Pass. She has a Japanese restaurant there. I always liked Japanese food, so we decided to do that. We wanted to do teppanyaki, and that always seems to go with sushi, so here we are."

I found the sushi from the Ritz's long bar excellent, with dozens of choices from the simple to the sublime. My favorite: the Golden Dragon Roll -- perfect sticky rice rolled around shrimp tempura and topped with tobiko (flying fish caviar), salmon sashimi and a thin triangle of lemon.

For those in the dark about teppanyaki, the word translates as "iron plate." As applied here, it's cooking on a large stainless steel grill/table, with the diners watching as the chef prepares seafood, steak, chicken or tofu, all with a variation on a sweet teriyaki sauce. The chef's often flamboyant style -- a show with flashing knives and juggling spatulas -- is integral to the dining experience. It's a great place to bring your family visiting from out of town, but not exactly ideal for an intimate date.

That's where Cin Cin comes in. In the beginning Zhao brought in a chef from Italy, Alberto Sarais, to write the menu and run the place. The nuovo Italiano food was simple and amazing. However, between family obligations back home and problems dealing with our post-9/11 immigration bureaucracy, Alberto has not been around much. He has made periodic month-long visits to refine the menu and train staff, but a firm hand in the kitchen was in order.

Enter Mahmoud Shaheen. Faithful readers of this column and its predecessor, Cuisine Scene, will remember his name: He was chef at the now-defunct La Casita, the Mexican restaurant turned international. He's been at Cin Cin for about a month.

Alberto's nuovo Italian menu is still in place, but Mahmoud is adding his touch. When we ate there last week, he asked if we would be willing to try some of his experiments as he works on revising the menu. How could we say no?

We began with a couple of appetizers: a plate of plump escargot cooked in a buttery garlic/parsley sauce, which my wife remarked were,"not like the ones I hunt in my garden". On another plate, a fried soft-shell crab encased in tempura and placed on a slice of toast, surrounded by a creamy egg-based sauce with shreds of lettuce and just a hint of cardamom. Mmmm.

photo of flight of red wines from the Cin Cin Wine BarI should point out that the appetizers were accompanied by a flight of red wines from the Cin Cin Wine Bar [left]. A new addition as of December, the wine bar offers an array of fine wines including red, white and sushi flights: 2 oz. tastes of three wines for a set price. The flight menu changes weekly. We had a trio of Cabernets: a 2003 Anderson Valley, a 2001 Tulip Hill and an Argentine Ben Marco Mendoza Cab/Merlot blend. The week before it was a Fieldbrook Barbera along with a couple of Italian reds.

A separate wine bar menu includes antipasti like prosciutto and pears, Henry's famous olives, assorted crostinis and Italian cheeses served with seasonal fruit, walnuts and crackers. Or, for those trying a sushi flight, items from the Ritz side, including edamame, oyster shooters or another variation on the soft shell crab tempura.

Dinner continued with another pair of plates: melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi with a tarragon cream sauce spiked with apple and slices of smoked salmon, and a filet of ling cod, grilled to perfection, placed on a bed of udon noodles, surrounded with orange butter sauce and topped with slivered green onions, shreds of carrots and daikon radish and bean sprouts with fresh soy beans sprinkled here and there.

The three of us had had enough, but another plate appeared, a rack of lamb cooked just right and cut into tender chops [top of page], surrounded by pieces of zucchini, turnip and potato bathed in a saffron-colored sauce with a hint of mint. It wasn't exactly Italian, but it was wonderful. We didn't eat it all -- a heavenly tiramisu was still to come.

I asked Zhao later about her thoughts on where she wanted to go with her international collection of dining establishments. "To me it's about pride," she began. "Mahmoud always says `I cook from my heart.' That's how I feel also. It might seem arrogant to tell you this, but it's true. I have a mission -- not to teach people, but to learn with people what real food is all about, and not overly sophisticated and complicated.

"With all our sushi, and all our food, simplicity is so important. Our sushi is elegant and delicate. In Cin Cin our Italian food is simple and delicious, with fresh ingredients. What else can I say, I think our food is good, that's how it should be."

The Ritz is open Mon-Fri from 11:30-2:30 for lunch and seven days a week for dinner from 5-9:30 p.m. at 240 F St. in Old Town, Eureka. 443-7489 for reservations. Cin Cin, at 421 3rd St., is open Wed.-Sun. 5-9:30 p.m. Call 444-3708 for reservations.


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