Until relatively recently, the downtown lunch meant gritting your teeth and going to Flames or Cuco’s Express (which has recently been rehabilitated in our eyes on account of their willingness to sub in a great guacamole taco in the $5.49 taco/enchilada lunch plate). Sure, there are a few other options (the Farmers Market on McDonough is pretty decent some days and Daisy’s isn’t too far away). But mostly, downtown is a tough place to find food worth buying, especially if you aren’t thinking steam table veggies in the meat-and-three format.
Into that picture waltzes (or should we say, tarantellas) the hot new place that everyone is talking about: Sa Za. The place is always crowded. Everyone asks if you have eaten there yet. The chef is on the cover of the Jan-Feb 2010 issue of Montgomery RSVP magazine (expect a free magazine review soon). So hip!
And about that chef: Joe Dimaggio, Jr. People love talking about that guy. He wears a Yankees hat. He always has on a t-shirt that reveals his arm tats. On the back of the t-shirts worn by the staff of the restaurant, most people have ones that say “server” or “staff,” but his says “sinner.” Edgy! Is he really the son of the legendary Yankee baseball player? No. That guy died in 1999 and never had children of his own (but did have two step kids). So the Yankee hat and the picture of the Yankee Clipper hanging in the restaurant? Well, I guess you just have to do that when that’s your name. Better than being “that guy who still wears his cap backwards.” No matter the chef’s relationship to the “other” DiMaggio, he’s clearly a serious cook with a good idea for a franchise, and is working his butt off to make sure it works (we’d suggest, as a start, not listing “New York, Tokyo, London” down at the bottom of their webpage since they don’t have Sa Za in any of those cities).
We hope it does. We like the Alley development, even though we don’t go there that often. We love the idea of Montgomery having things downtown that people could frequent, and hope that all this will spin off into mixed-use housing and the other stuff that would enliven downtown. We also think it’s pretty cool to have this guy starting his new franchise concept right here in Capital City, even though we’re not so big on restaurant franchises in general. DiMaggio may be on to something for real here – the “fast casual” Italian niche is bloated with entries like the Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, and Carrabas – all strip mall suburban stand-alones that don’t so much develop cities as destroy them. I can imagine a franchise like Sa Za investing in places like Montgomery that badly need the opposite of the Olive Garden.
To be clear: Sa Za is not the opposite of the Olive Garden. But it’s at least approaching an obtuse angle from that perennial dinner-with-older-relatives destination. They rehabbed an old building rather than buy one of those awful restaurant pads. Their menu isn’t glutted with a lot of stuff served “Alfredo,” and the ingredients they are using are clearly very high quality. The decor is urban loft-y without being gross, and city chic without trying too hard. There’s some stuff that needs improving – for example, a glass of wine should come in something bigger than a glorified shot glass – but in general it’s got all the ingredients. And if the crappy Wintzell’s across the street (not to be confused with the good Wintzell’s in Mobile) is packing people in, Sa Za should be fending off lines out the door.
I had been once before for a quick lunch. The place was packed, so I sat at the bar with a friend and we split a pizza. It was unimpressive looking, but quite tasty. A simple tomato and basil and cheese pizza is tough to mess up, but the crust was great and the atmosphere was festive and warm. Someone painted a picture near us while we ate and we got out of there with a cheap but largely unremarkable lunch. Not really worth reviewing other than for some superficial comments about the style of the place.
But we went back with 5 folks for a mid-day lunch recently, and my overwhelming feeling for Sa Za as we left was pity. It was a shame that, on the day we went in to eat, we got to experience a pretty epic server fail. Look, the place is nice. But ultimately, they hired this person and this was the meal we went in to eat. And thus, the review that follows.
Due to the high volume of folks, we went in at 12:10 to get on the list for 12:30. Five people. Two of us were seated just before 12:30 and our party arrived pretty quickly thereafter.
The menu is an enormous laminated sheet, with decent (if pricey) variety of offerings. Garlic sticks were nearly ordered (three or four bucks for a dozen), but most of the apps were in the $8 to $12 zone, putting them out of range for a simple lunch trip.
Person One ordered an appetizer of flattened chicken over a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and a piece of pizza. The salad didn’t look that good, but then again, we don’t eat chicken. Maybe some people are really into hammered flat flesh discs. Person Two, annoyed that there was no lasagna on the menu, ordered a pizza. The menu boasts about how many pizza toppings the place has. There’s a long list and then the menu says, “and 30 more toppings not listed here!” He ordered pepperoni and green olives. Person Three has puttanesca, the pasta of the bordellos. Person Four orders baked rigatoni. Person Five has a spicy shrimp marinara.
Keep in mind that this is lunch. The plan was to eat from 12:30 till 1:30 or so. The people we were with work for a pretty demanding place that isn’t that cool with unexplained extended lunch hours. So we were relaxed but — like most lunch diners — on a clock.
Well, the hammered chicken disc salad comes and we wait. And we wait. And we talk some more. And we wait. As we start to check the time, the server comes over and informs us that they don’t have green olives. Unclear whether they aren’t on the menu or they just happen to be out. But the point is clear: They just now realize that there are no green olives because they have just now started to bake the pizza. When faced with our incredulous dismay, the server says with a shrug, “Oh, my bad. I just assumed that I’d put in the order for the main courses after the appetizer. I guess I should have asked.”
Um. Yes. Was she waiting for One person to consume the appetizer before putting in the food order? Waiting for us to somehow signal her that we were ready for them to start cooking our food?
Needless to say, the food finally arrived and was tasty. All of it was tasty. The puttanesca was especially delicious – it’s an under-ordered delicacy that’s easy to make and fresh and good. But we were pissed. Our friends were going to be late. They gobbled food like crazy. Then, to make matters worse, the server must have figured that she was screwed on getting a tip anyway, so she just ignored us for a good while before bringing us our bill. An offer to give us a discount? An offer of free dessert? Nope. Not even one of those heartfelt apologies that reminds you that you too once did some time in a restaurant serving job and the industry can be tough — full of bad tipping, thankless customers with messy children and inflated senses of entitlement. Nope. We left at 2:00.
The next day, one of us ate at Old Enzor Lane in nearby Troy. It’s a ladies-that-lunch type restaurant in a lovely old house that’s only open a few days a week. Her party was one of just a few for lunch. The service was in no particular hurry, and their lunch took half an hour longer than it probably should have. Without a need for any discussion about this, the server brought free dessert for the table (and the grilled pound cake with strawberry cream filling should immediately be declared a national treasure). This is the way to do it.
If Sa Za wants to franchise out, they should take a page from Old Enzor Lane. Ultimately, we will eat there again, if only because we want to support urban redevelopment and The Alley. And on its worst day, Sa Za has more to offer than Dreamland (the only other place to get food in the Legendary Redevelopment Project That’s Going To Save Downtown). But it’s a bit of a bummer to go in to review a place and end up leaving with a batch of frustrated and harried folks, even if the food was quite tasty.