Helen Schwab

A 2002 view: ‘At Zebra, cuisine’s a fine art’

This review originally ran in June 2002.

In just nine months, Zebra has become Charlotte’s most intriguing dinner destination.

From soup to nuts – or amuses-gueules to mignardises, if you prefer – co-owners Pete Pappas and Jim Alexander are creating an experience no one else in town is attempting: a blend of the formal and the accessible in contemporary French food. And it works.

What’s that mean?

It means your server will bring you an amuse-gueule – that’s a complimentary tidbit to set the tone for your dinner – and explain it in English. (”It freaks out some people, “ laughs chef Alexander. “They say, ‘I didn’t order that!’ But it’s a nice gesture from the house.”)

It means a diner whose companions order appetizers or salads will be brought a “supplement” – a tiny cup of soup or salad to keep him from feeling left out.

It means you might order an appetizer of foie gras flan in an eggshell with foie gras au torchon and truffles, or you might just opt for parsnip soup.

It also means you might stop in for Two Eggs Any Style at 8 a.m. instead, because the place serves breakfast and lunch, too (though this review is about dinner only).

In a city split between diners who know moulard from muscovy and diners who couldn’t tell a Screaming Eagle from a Mad Dog, keeping things interesting but approachable is no small feat.

The owners are equally intriguing. Pappas, an ex-bowling alley partner who nails up his own woodwork and delights in telling you how much money he saved doing it, uses his art-major background to critique the kitchen’s presentations, and has developed a remarkable wine list. Alexander, an ex-country club chef hungry for validation in the “real world,” wants nothing less than to create an East Coast French Laundry, a Napa Valley, Calif., restaurant known for extravagant detail and witty culinary concepts.

Both obsess over details and work ethic.

Listen to Alexander explain why he recently changed the look of his stellar lamb entree of tenderloin au poivre with braised shoulder meat:

“You know how when you’ve roasted meat just right, and you slice into it and the juices just come to the edge and hold on? There’s nothing better. I was slicing (lamb) for the tasting menu and I thought, ‘God, that looks good!’ And serving it that way adds another layer of color. To me, it’s elevating the presentation, and maybe even the dining experience.”

Here’s Pappas telling how Zebra manages to serve three meals a day:

“I cook breakfast every day ... my mom (who’s 80 now) comes in and does cash for me in the morning. It makes her feel needed – and she is needed. ... It’s all family. I don’t know how you could do it if it’s not family.” He doesn’t have to find out. Family has been constant, from his 15 years working at the Epicurean, owned by relatives, to now, when Alexander’s wife and sons help out in varying capacities.

Zebra’s combination of artistic leaning and hard-knocks practicality results in its best features.

Alexander, for example, has taken to turning orange and grapefruit rinds left over from daytime fruit cups into part of the evening’s coffee service: strips of blanched, sugar-dusted rind for between-sip munching. After cleaning foie gras for the tournedo of beef Rossini style, he uses the bits in soup - and the breakfast menu features a foie gras omelet. He uses “the entire animal” for his rabbit ballotine (the meat is boned, stuffed, rolled and tied, then poached in stock made with said bones).

Other dishes are purely fun.

A playful lobster “Waldorf” salad encases succulent bits of shellfish in a paper-thin casing of pear, topped with two shelled claws and a drizzle of anise-flavored creme fraiche. A “sail” of crackery lavosh bread, complete with a mast made of a single chive, tops a fat and juicy crab cake. The Cristo layers salmon and snapper with shrimp mousseline (like a mousse) and baby spinach.

The popular surf-and-turf entree employs a willowy basket of angel hair pasta, butter-braised lobster, roasted beef tenderloin and sauteed shrimp and scallops. I didn’t see poached Dover sole, but Pappas described it: It’s filleted in the kitchen and its bones rinsed, then interlocked like a rollercoaster for presentation.

Colors and height are key (the more vertical, the more Pappas likes it).

Desserts are still what Alexander calls “kitchen desserts”; not particularly elaborate, but handsomely executed. (Our otherwise-subtle server steered us hard toward one evening’s “Chocolate Creation, “ a flat-topped pyramid of citrus-inside-milk-chocolate bavarian cream, garnished with thin chocolate shapes and raspberries in a Deco sort of look.)

The mignardises – or friandises, or (are you gasping for English now?) little delicacies served after dessert – included tiny jellies and chocolates on our visits. Another formal detail, graciously done.

Servers, well-educated and self-assured, guide with ease and humor.

What the menu misses in accessibility – it’s awash in precise French – they make up for in personable explanations. Their wine advice is sound, but can’t compare with Pappas’s detail-driven chat; luckily, he’s nearly always there.

Is Zebra completely realized? No. The learning curve continues, as does staff and menu smoothing. Unlike the woodwork, for which area artist Terry Reitzel condensed a 17-step finishing process into three steps, there’s no cutting corners. But Zebra is growing more confident, not trying quite so hard to impress, and, as is often the case, becoming more impressive because of it.