The New Haven restaurant’s chef brings an artist’s touch to the menu
By Todd Lyon
Chef Denise Appel is an artist.
The fact that she is an artful chef is obvious; her exhilarating, ever-changing, always-original menu is the heartbeat of ZINC, the downtown New Haven eatery that turns 20 this year. Nowhere else in our state, or perhaps our country, or perhaps the whole wide world, would diners be presented with choices ranging from a Salmon Gravlax Bowl with kefir coconut milk sauce, candied mangoes and kimchi, to Crab Fondue with fried artichokes, or Ricotta Gnocchi with celeriac-fennel sauce and crème fraîche pickled beets. The menu pings and bounces between continents, madly grabbing flavors and making crazy bedfellows of dishes like Lettuce Wraps with mint-chile-garlic sauce, Vegetarian Vindaloo, and Weisswurst and Knockwurst Grilled Sausages.
It is an artistic adventure indeed – culinary collage comes to mind – but what diners might not realize is that Appel’s cuisine is part of her life as an artist. She is a chef, a painter, a sculptor, a leather worker, a woodworker, and a metalsmith. Those of us lucky enough to have seen her paintings (albeit on a bitty phone screen) have gotten a shot of her primal energy: Vibrant abstract expressionist works, with flying paint and integrated objects, occupy huge canvasses, some as tall as nine feet. “Painting and food: that’s how I get my thoughts across,” explains Appel. “I make constant adjustments to my paintings, and sometimes I’ll paint right over a canvas and start over. I do the same with food. I’m always experimenting, always changing.” Art has been entwined with Appel’s cookery ever since she started working at the Museum Café at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum. That was back in 1987, but it wasn’t quite her first restaurant job. In high school, she was a fry cook at Burger King. “The polyester outfits drove me out,” she laughs. Much earlier, it was her grandmother, Katherine Crites, who instilled a love of cooking in Appel, the youngest of seven kids.
“My grandmother would come and stay with us and cook for the family, to help my mother out,” she recalls. “She would make German food, French food, spaetzle, beef-on-the-bone broth. She had been a private cook for a priest for 24 years.”Fast forward to when the 17-year-old Denise Appel took a job at the Buckboard in Glastonbury, her hometown. Fate struck when she met manager Donna Curran, who would become a major influence in Appel’s life. Young as Appel was, their professional bond became the stuff of legend, and Curran remains co-owner of ZINC to this day. After the Buckboard, Appel worked at a gourmet shop and catering firm – back when the word “gourmet” meant something. Very much like New York’s tony Silver Palate, it was where Appel learned about upscale ingredients like smoked salmon, pâtés, expensive cheeses and the like. “We were doing events for 800 people and charging $400 per person,” as befitted the excessive ‘80s. When Curran became GM of the Museum Café, she brought Appel along. “I started out as a waitress and hated it,” recalls the chef. The day a kitchen worker called in sick, Appel jumped on the chance to get behind the lines. “That was the only time in my life that anyone told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.” She did it anyway, and from that day – still a senior in high school – she soaked up techniques and learned the wisdom of ingredients from a steady stream of mentors. Appel remembers them all, their names and how they enriched her life, from the young New Orleans native who’d worked at the famed Commander’s Palace and taught her classical French cuisine, to front-of-house wizards who elevated dishes with impeccable service and perfect wine pairings.
One colleague who changed the course of Appel’s life was Paul Rossman, formerly of Cavey’s. “He was an amazing chef,” she recalls, “and he also had a master’s degree in painting.” She loved his artwork so much that she was inspired to return to painting herself – a passion since the age of eight that had faded in the heat of her restaurant career and her studies at Manchester Community College (she has an associate’s degree in hotel food service management). What’s more, he was the first to expose her to high-end seasonal cooking.
“That was back in the mid-’90s before we even had phrases like ‘farm-to-table,’” she says. “I was 23 years old; I started cooking with the seasons and working directly with farmers.” Thanks to a travel and dining stipend provided by the Atheneum, Rossman and Appel also went on culinary adventures that landed them at some of the most exciting and influential restaurants in New York.
“At the Museum Café, the menus were designed to complement the exhibits,” explains Appel. “The world came to us.” Thus, for a Fabergé egg exhibit, the team produced a Russian menu; for surrealism, they carved letters out of giant blocks of cheddar; a Warhol exhibit inspired a pop art sensibility. Special events had Appel working side by side with chefs from Africa and Malaysia; it is also where she first discovered her love of Indian and Vietnamese cuisine. “Vietnamese is my favorite,” she says. “There is the cleanliness of the vinegars, the citrus, and also that French influence.”
When Curran and Appel opened ZINC in 1999, New Haven was recovering from economic strife; plenty of storefronts were vacant, some were boarded up, and the former Chapel Square Mall was nearly deserted. Over the years, as the city has come blazing back to life, ZINC has remained an oasis of low-key sophistication. With soothing lighting, muted tones, modernist design, a small-but-friendly bar and a private dining room that seems always to be the site of lively gatherings, it has the feel of a boutique restaurant in a terribly expensive big-city hotel.
And yet … snacks. Yes, you can order the $35 Grilled Rib Eye with porcini/red wine demi-glace, truffle butter, mashed Yukon potatoes and shaved Brussels sprouts. Or, you can dig into an order of Steamed Dumplings with pork, ginger, sake, soy and chile sauce, and scallion-ginger pesto. Have the outstanding Scottish Salmon with arborio risotto and carrot juice, lemon-thyme pesto, peas and spinach, and fresh gooseberry and pomegranate relish … or kick back with the Duck Nachos, featuring whiskey barrel smoked duck, fried wonton skins, chipotle aioli, and lime crema. (Duck Nachos, says Appel, is one of the dishes that would cause a customer uprising if she took it off the menu; another is the Tuna entrée, which is a soy-cured grilled yellowfin served with vegetable spring rolls with ponzu sauce, fried spinach, wasabi oil and chile-garlic sauce.)
“We’re a neighborhood restaurant,” says Appel. “You don’t need a special occasion to eat here. We have customers who come in five days a week.” And then, of course, there is Kitchen ZINC, the pizza restaurant directly adjacent to ZINC that faces the Temple Plaza courtyard. Opened by Curran and Appel in 2008, it more than holds its own in a pizza-mad town. But that’s another story for another day.
The combination of fine dining options and Asian street food is what makes ZINC’s personality so distinctive. A fantastic way to experience this culinary territory is via one of ZINC’s special tasting menus. Available with a week’s advance notice, Mondays through Fridays, this five-course meal features “smallish” plates paired with wines, and is custom-designed by the chef with people’s dining preferences in mind. “We always respect people’s food restrictions and choices,” says the chef. “I customize the menu for you – sometimes I’ll invent dishes based on what you like.” The cost for this one-of-a-kind dining adventure is $100 per person with wines, $65 without.
Wine, beer and cocktail choices change with the menu, guided by the expertise of third-level sommelier Michael Egan and special events expert Elizabeth Ciarlelli. Appel says they are part of a rock-solid team that keeps the restaurant humming, including pastry chef Alba Estenoz, who has been at ZINC for 10 years, and chef de cuisine Alex Blifford, who first worked there at age 18 and came back at 28. For the past several years, Appel, often along with her life partner Liz Jacovino, her business partner Curran, and Curran’s husband, Patrick McCaughey, has traveled the world, seeking and finding inspiration. “Sometimes the trips are as much about art as they are about food,” she confesses. That makes sense: Not only is Appel an artist, but McCaughey is the former director of both the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Yale Center for British Art. But there is plenty of eating, too, in places like Rome, Paris, London, and Berlin.
On their own, “Liz and I have eaten our way through some major places,” says Appel, and mentions Amsterdam, Prague, the Tuscan Valley, Florence, and stopovers along the Danube River – just a few of their overseas trips. The two have cycled through Yellowstone, have visited Alaska, and have a special place in their hearts (and their stomachs) for Key West. “There are so many places I’d still like to see in the U.S.,” says Appel, but her culinary travel bucket list includes Japan and the home of her favorite flavors, Vietnam. Soon Appel will turn 50 (it’s a big year for ZINC). When asked what she’ll be doing in 10 years, her answer is strong and certain: painting. And continuing to love and care for her beloved rescue dogs. As for her final meal – which we hope won’t be for another 50 years – forget the kimchi and nuoc cham sauce. She’ll be having Lucky Charms in milk, a forbidden childhood treat.
- 2.5 oz Hillrock Sauternes Cask Finished Bourbon Whiskey
- .75 oz Giffard Abricot du Roussillon
- Stir all ingredients in mixing glass, then stain into Nick and Nora glass garnish with orange twist
- 2 oz Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
- .50 oz Lejay Cassis
- .25 oz Garden Party Rosemary Liqueur
- .25 Fresh Lime Juice
- Shake all ingredients then double strain into chilled martini glass. garnish with fresh rosemary sprig
- 2 oz Woodford bourbon
- .75 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
- .50 oz House made cinnamon simple syrup
- 2 dashes of scrappy’s orange bitters
- Stir all ingredients together and pour over large single ice cube that has orange segment frozen inside.