When Zoko Restaurant Bar & Grill opened its doors in late January, the eatery had an extra obstacle to clear. Zoko occupies the same space once held by Auden’s Kitchen, Bruce Auden’s new American eatery, which closed last February.
Outwardly, not much has changed, but a step inside revealed a new lavender paint job and boldly colored woven placemats with even brighter napkins. Gone are the cursive quotes overlaid on the back wall mirrors. The restaurant layout remains almost identical and I could swear the conical fry baskets are the same. But otherwise, where new American eats were once doled out, now Spanish fare is served up on the open kitchen ledge.
The word zoko is Basque for nook, but it’s also the name of chef-driven societies for eating and drinking. Chef and part-owner Clint Connaway is trying to do Zoko justice with European cuisine and Texan hospitality, and his years in the industry in Texas and abroad are evident. Locally he worked under Damien Watel at Bistro Vatel for seven years before taking his talents to Max’s Wine Dive in 2011 and later being named executive chef in 2012 by the Houston-based chain.
Connaway’s large menu appeals on several fronts without scaring off would-be diners. Broken down into beginnings, ensaladas, flatbreads and entradas, the menu features familiar takes including fried calamari, hummus and a classic Caesar salad, while stretching its legs with the protein-laden entrees (the entrada section is definitely not for vegetarians).
I stopped by on Thursday for my first visit, perhaps drawn by the allure of flamenco dancers. The back room also functions as an art gallery, playing host to the flamenco showcases of the currently displaced Carmen’s de la Calle dance troupe ($10 gets you in to enjoy the show). We opted instead for a spot at one of the plush leather booths in the dining room, as the faint sounds of clapping and dancing trickled from behind the back room’s closed doors.
The night began with an order of frites with a trio of sauces ($6), served in the aforementioned cone-shaped basket. Crispy, but still pliable, the frites were just salty enough to eat on their own, but doing so would mean missing out on creamy garlic aioli or vibrant chimichurri sauce. We kept the carb party going with a bite of the house bread. While it was not entirely impressive on its own, Zoko does offer a paprika-infused olive oil for dipping. Fragrant and just-so palatable, the oil may or may not have been used for fry dipping as well.
Having just tried chef’s paella entry during the Corona Paella Challenge at the Pearl Brewery, I opted for a single portion of the seafood paella. The dish is usually served for two at $22, but our server said single plates were also available, in case individual diners want to get in on the Valenciana action. Perfectly cooked shrimp, mussels, calamari and redfish adorn quality saffron rice as tiny cubes of spicy Spanish chorizo helped liven things up.
My fastidious companion opted for the seasonal vegetarian penne pasta with grilled chicken ($16); a flavorful mound of penne smothered in a rich red sauce. As one of the more middle-of-the-road dishes available, the pasta delivered just that. If you must opt for dessert, the blackberry mascarpone panna cotta ($6) isn’t a bad idea. Light, custardy and not overly sweet, it was a great way to end the meal.
The lunch menu doesn’t deviate much from dinner; if anything, the portions are just a tad smaller and prices more affordable, but the ambiance lacks … oomph.
The so-called “beginnings” are definitely shareable but can be turned into an adequate lunch if you’re so inclined—I suggest going for the spicy lamb meatballs with crumbles of fresh feta and colorful green peppers in a roasted tomato sauce. Layers of flavor meld over a hefty meatball in this unexpectedly hearty dish.
Our server steered us away from the flatbreads ($12 for a choice of three toppings), and I chose the marinated beef brochette. I’ve gotta insist that Connaway nails food delivery—the roasted fingerling potatoes were heavenly, the skewers were tender and dotted with tangy chimichurri. Underneath, a sweet yet briny olive relish with diced cucumbers took the dish to another level.
While Zoko isn’t pushing any boundaries—yet—the restaurant’s general direction is encouraging. Auden’s has a suitable, if safe, successor.
Zoko Restaurant Bar & Grill
700 E Sonterra
Skinny The former Auden’s Kitchen space gets a bright makeover and a new lease on life with Spanish tapas and excellent sauces via executive chef Clint Connaway and sous Nolan Pierce
Best Bets Marinated beef brochette, seafood paella and spicy lamb meatballs
Hours 11am-10pm Mon-Sat Price $6-$18 for lunch, $6-$24 dinner
Price $6-$18 for lunch, $6-$24 dinner