June 14, 2013
Scoop or no scoop: Catching up with Noah Zonca

In the newspaper business, scoops are pretty darn important. Years ago, at the Detroit Free Press, where I wrote about crime and covered things like major murder trials, I would have hell to pay if the scrappy newspaper down the street, the Detroit News, had a story I had missed.

What, you may ask, does that have to do with food, restaurants and, in this case, a talented chef named Noah Zonca? Well, I thought I had a scoop - and missed it - regarding Zonca, once the headliner at the much-admired performance restaurant The Kitchen. Zonca quietly stepped down at The Kitchen at the beginning of 2013, headed out of town for a spell, and just as quietly returned to Sacramento.

When I was eating recently at The Rind, the new cheese bar in the 1800 block of L Street, someone named "Noah" was mentioned by the waiter as the person behind the papered-in windows next door at a restaurant to be called Dime. This would be in the site of the former L Wine Lounge, which closed two years ago amid legal disputes with the landlord. So I tracked down Zonca and asked about it. That was two weeks ago. Back then, Zonca told me he had a "silent interest" in Dime and would have to get permission from the main investor before releasing more information.

Fast forward to a couple of days ago and I was rather startled to read on Sactown Magazine's website that Zonca was opening a new restaurant called Dime. Say what? So I called Zonca again and wondered, "Have I been breathing in too many fumes? Or have you?"

Well, I guess scoops can be overrated. Had I reported what I thought I knew two weeks ago, it would have been accurate - but not permanent.

As Zonca told me last night, things changed rather dramatically since our first chat. He was acting in an advisory role and, the more advice he imparted, the more attached he became to the Dime's mission and concept. Originally, it was going to be an a la carte, farm-to-fork menu with everything $10 or less.

But when Zonca started putting it all together, he realized the menu wouldn't be interesting enough, competitive enough and, most importantly, it wouldn't really express quality farm to fork ingredients in their best light at that pricepoint.

So Zonca is expanding - and elevating - the menu. And now his investment - financially and otherwise - has increased dramatically. He's no longer silent. He was working on a scallop dish with housemade Thai curry when we spoke again.

He also wants to have a wine list with 40 wines under $50. That may sound egalitarian for someone coming from the $135-per-person The Kitchen, but for a place like Dime, with a pastrami sandwich on offer, I hope they have some $18 and $25 bottles on that list, too. Zonca also said he has embraced the craft beer scene and will showcase quality beers at Dime. He's also toying with kombucha on tap (Dad's Kitchen has kombucha on tap).

But wine and beer aren't really the controversial beverage at Dime. Zonca will be serving coffee roasted by Carmichael roaster and coffee shop Boulevard Coffee. Very popular place. But yikes! That's dark roast coffee. Ask for dark roast at Insight, Old Soul, Temple or Boulevard and you will likely get a friendly but firm explanation that roasting coffee to the extreme obliterates the flavor out of quality coffee beans and replaces it with carbon.

That said, many of us were raised on dark roast and trained by Starbuck and Peet's to enjoy dark roast. But I digress. Zonca likes dark roast and so do lots of people.

Zonca says he hopes to have Dime ready to open by Fourth of July weekend. This is exciting for the Handle District, midtown and beyond. If Zonca can translate the skill and charisma we saw at The Kitchen to this vastly different concept, he will become a key player on the culinary scene.

But that's not all. Zonca is still looking to open his very own restaurant, he tells me. And he's checking out various locations at the moment, with a target opening of six months or more away. Will he be on stage, cracking one-liners and explaining the cooking and sourcing as he did at The Kitchen? Zonca, who pretty much grew up at The Kitchen and worked there for 17 years, was really good in front of an audience.

"I'm going to do something on my own. It won't be The Kitchen concept," he said of this other restaurant on the horizon. "The Kitchen is The Kitchen. It's one of a kind," the chef said. "My plan is to have regional products. I'm 100 percent Italian, so I'm going to have more of an Italian influence, but it's not going to be an Italian restaurant. The food is going to be approachable for everyone from a pricepoint, but it's not going to be a totally casual spot."

Asked about deciding to leave The Kitchen, Zonca said, "It was absolutely hard. It was like saying goodbye to family. As far as parting ways went, it was a very positive thing. There were some tears. There were some hugs. And we all wished each other the best.

"It was a wonderful ride. It was definitely the end of an era for both of us. I worked for that company for 17 years. It was time for a change. I think if I stayed there until I was 40 I would have been there for the rest of my life."

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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