Delicious food: that's Z thing

Published October 20, 2006

INVERNESS - Nestled in a historic home near the lakefront, Z Chefs is one of those restaurants that invites a diner to partake in fine dining in an intimate setting.

Z Chefs reminds me of one of the many great restaurants in Savannah, Ga. - those discoveries you make when you're just walking a block or two from one of the city's parks, and voila, there's a restaurant awning peeking out from beneath the oaks.

The fact that Z Chefs is in a historic house (circa 1915) is but icing on the cake. Sure, it's memorable to dine in a small Florida Cracker house with a rotating art exhibit, but this is a restaurant, not a gallery.

The food at Z Chefs is the main attraction. And it's definitely worth venturing a short way from the Courthouse Square. Park at the city lot off Pine Street and walk up the back steps and around the deck to reach the front door. It's a pleasant stroll, just long enough to readjust your senses for the meal that awaits.

The chef at Z Chefs is Zachary Klemm, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. His wife, Michelle, is the host and baker. She will know your name and a personal detail or two by your second visit. Between the two, a great meal, whether it be lunch or dinner, is a certainty. The depth and creativity of the menu keeps me enthralled visit after visit. Even my mother is hooked on it, and she gets to visit only once or twice a year.

A house specialty for lunch is the quiche du jour, a good-looking slice of quiche, not runny or flat, brought to the table with a colorful palette of fresh fruit and a small freshly baked croissant. Zachary Klemm is also known for his omelets, also with fruit and the minicroissant, and broiled fish and vegetables.

Other lunch specials are the Reuben, which, on a recent visit, proved that half a sandwich with a cup of chowder was enough to put a smile on my face for the rest of the day. Okay, there was that slice of cheesecake at the end as well.

The corned beef on the Reuben is cooked in the kitchen and is a tender prime grade, Michelle Klemm says. The Thousand Island-style dressing is homemade, creamy and flavorful.

A pleasant surprise was the Boston chowder, which takes its turn in the soup du jour roster. It's like New England clam chowder except much lighter and seasoned with tarragon. I didn't have to hunt around with my spoon for the minced clams.

Whether for lunch or dinner, the kitchen staff is always filling crocks with the popular French onion soup. Other lunch entrees include a sliced marinated sirloin steak sandwich, a classic BLT, a chicken salad wrap and blackened chicken or grouper. There's more, and the attentive wait staff will always describe the daily specials with expertise.

Dinner is a bit more upscale and delicious. Live piano music comes from what used to be the home's front porch most weekends.

Appetizers are as individual as the home's kitschy decor. There's the pot of mussels, the stuffed mushrooms or the homemade mozzarella sticks, to name but a few.

Zach Klemm makes several great presentations from steak, chicken, salmon or shrimp. The Tornadoes of Beef Tenderloin, my personal favorite, are two filet mignons topped with a shrimp maitre d'hotel butter.

The jumbo shrimp scampi is served over a bed of linguini and has that intoxicating fragrance of fresh garlic tamed by white wine and butter. The pan-seared Norwegian salmon is finished with fresh dill and a garlic cream sauce.

Medallions of pork are topped with prosciutto and mozzarella, served on a bed of fresh spinach and finished with a touch of demi-glace.

The baked chicken is dipped in egg, seared and finished with lemon and a white wine butter sauce.

The wine list covers the basics well. You'll find chardonnay, a nice reisling for summer evenings, a bordeaux, shiraz, pinot and cabernet. There is also liquor, and they stir a pleasant martini and appletini.

Believe me when I tell you, fellow diners, that you won't find food this well prepared and delicious at any chain restaurant on the main highway. Be adventurous, drive a block or two from the middle of town and enjoy yourselves at this local treasure.

And before you leave: Please, please, please have a slice of Michelle's cheesecake. The woman is a cheesecake freak. She makes two or three flavors each day.

On the day of the Reuben visit, there was mango cheesecake (delicious), fresh blueberry cheesecake and the house special, black cherry and chocolate chip cheesecake. On that day Michelle added a chocolate crumb crust.

She's meticulous about the details.

"I had to use fresh blueberries but couldn't get any wild ones," she said. "The wild blueberries are smaller and they stay whole in the cheesecake, and when you bite down on them, they burst and you get this extra flavor."

I chose the blueberry, with a small sample of the black cherry chocolate chip on the side.

It's a good thing the bike trail is nearby, because I had to do my penance later that afternoon with longer-than- usual pedal push.

Jorge Sanchez covers arts and entertainment in Citrus. Contact him at sanchez@sptimes.com or (352)860-7313 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 7313.