GRILLED FLANK STEAK: is a best buy more than hungry students can enjoy.
The original Z Square, in Harvard Square, was all over the menu map. It had upscale, downscale, retro, and futuristic food, plus dueling chefs — and managed a fun, youthful atmosphere with some good food nevertheless. With the second location, in Kenmore Square, the menu has been simplified and focused. There’s still lots of ways for you to eat, reflected in the different types of seating areas: tables, bar, and lounge; high and low. But the menu is now under control — even if it’s less eclectic.
Z Square | 580 Comm Ave, Boston
Open Mon–Thurs, 7 am–10 pm; Fri, 7 am–Midnight; Sat, 8 am–midnight; and Sun, 8 am–10 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Ramped access | 617.425.0101
The first and best reform is that Z Square stopped charging for its bread basket. Now it offers the same four French rolls and foil-wrapped butter, at no charge. My favorite current appetizer is “Slow Roasted Tomato, Basil & Cheddar Soup” ($3.50). Despite all that verbiage, it’s simply fresh chopped basil in a classic cream-of-tomato soup, with a little cheese enrichment. Our table got two by mistake, and we inhaled both of them. “Spicy Chili-Rubbed Shrimp with roasted corn relish & cilantro cream” ($10) is another wordy description, this time for a skewer of four medium shrimp, nicely grilled, with a little chili kick, a creamy cilantro dip, and a relish of corn and chopped peppers. “Café Z Salad” ($8.50; $12 with grilled chicken) is a lot of greens and some feta, plus shaved fennel, golden raisins, toasted walnuts, and a creamy balsamic dressing. The chipotle wings ($9) were four full wings, cut into the usual parts and fried without enough chipotle to matter. The blue-cheese sauce still lacks cheese. This is exactly the way it was when I whined about it in my review of the original location. You have to admire a kitchen that knows what it wants to serve. They’re specializing in student neighborhoods, and that means student palates.
Z Square does produce a “best buy” for the hungry student: the “Grilled Flank Steak with black beans & rice, avocado & chimichurri” ($16). This platter has a tough-but-tasty flank steak served sliced over a mound of burrito stuffings. The Argentine (but increasingly pan-Latin) sauce of chopped parsley and garlic is excellent. Z Square also does well by the universal grilled salmon entrée ($16), placing the correctly cooked (slightly underdone) beefsteak-shaped piece of salmon in a ragout of canned plum tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and sliced red potatoes. Lamb shish kabob ($16), which I liked at the Harvard Square location, is only slightly tougher and less marinated here, with the same onions and vegetables threaded onto the skewers, and very decent rice with a few diced veggies.
The only weak dish I tried was the Moroccan vegetable stew ($12). Maghrebian spice mixtures aren’t always hot, but they should never be bland, as this one is. The result that unfortunate vegan diners are faced with is a palatable but dull plate of mushy stew and couscous.
Wines at Z Square are admirably inexpensive ($5 to $10 by the glass; all bottles under $30) and served in glasses big enough to bring up some aroma. The 2003 McWilliams shiraz ($7/glass; $28/bottle) was the best we tasted for this kind of food. A non-vintage wine, the Xplorador cabernet from Chile ($7/$28), and a 2004 Red Rock merlot ($7/$28) went to the spicy sides of their respective grapes, and are good picks for world food. Most impressive, you get a big cup of fair-trade coffee or decaf for only $1.50.
Desserts are mostly permutations of Toscanini’s ice cream. It’s some of the best, but only two flavors were in stock when we visited: vanilla and caramel. The “simple dessert” of the day ($5) was an apple crisp that was more like a corner-square piece of apple pie — mostly crust. It comes with Toscanini’s ice cream and caramel sauce, though. A cookie ($2.50) is the budget way to get a scoop of ice cream, which comes on top. Ice cream by itself ($4) gets you two scoops. For a really sweet tooth, the root-beer float ($5) features Stewart’s Root Beer, so you get two top brands.
Service at the new Z Square is good, despite a complicated system. Servers put your empty dishes into a large drawer beneath a serving station. At some point, they’re then picked up by a phantom busperson. Not all of our food was hot, we got an extra soup, and some wines were unavailable. But the staff smoothed things over and did well with what they got.
Despite a lot of windows, flagstone-look flooring, and wood tables, Z Square is not as loud as the old Harvard Square cafeterias that inspired owner David Zebny. I credit the cut-up floor plan and acoustic tile in the ceiling. I know that stuff looks cheap, but it does work. The atmosphere depends on where you’re seated, and sometimes there’s live music.