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Black and White



"The difference between being a chef in a country club and being in my own place is now I have to deal with health inspections and restaurant critics," says co-owner and chef Jim Alexander of Zebra Restaurant & Wine Bar. The good news is Alexander need not worry. Recently Zebra received a 100 point rating from the county health inspector. As for his food, I don't have a numeric rating system, but if I did, he still wouldn't have to worry. Zebra Restaurant & Wine Bar is the inspired offspring of Alexander, his wife Lisa, and restaurateur Pete Pappas. Alexander, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and native of Clemson, SC, came to Zebra by way of a 10-year stint at Myers Park Country Club. Pete Pappas has been in the restaurant business most of his life. He worked for 15 years in his aunt and uncle's place, The Epicurean, a restaurant on East Boulevard, which had the reputation in the late 70s and early 80s as being one of the best restaurants in the city. From there he went on to own Park Lanes Bowling Alley with his brother, a professional bowler. Next Pappas opened a small place, primarily for breakfast and lunch, at 6100 Fairview in SouthPark and then the Pine Room at Night downtown. The Pine Room is still open. Pappas first met Alexander when Pappas -- as a member of the Food Committee at Myers Park Country Club -- interviewed Alexander for that job. Alexander impressed him. Pappas discussed opening a second Pine Room in the SouthPark area until Alexander came on board. Alexander named the restaurant Zebra, a name he had thought about for another venture, but Pappas agreed that it was a name everyone could remember. The 85-seat restaurant, located in an office building facing SouthPark Mall, has a series of small intimate rooms beginning with the entrance through the 20-seat patio. The interior has rich pine woodwork, walls of windows, and a cozy fireplace. The concrete floor has been stained in an earthy red, and the back wall of the last room features an imposing painting of zebras on an African plain by local artist Terry Weitzel. Tables are set in black and white. Cork boards and large wine bottles highlight the walls, and a Champagne riddling rack is used to shelter a table from a doorway. Reading the 40 page wine list will take a while. During this time the kitchen may send out a jewel-like amuse-bouche signaling their welcome. The wine list contains 892 bottles. Among these are some hard to find, highly allocated bottles, and a few Filene's Basement bargains types. I could not resist having a silky Pride Mountain Vineyards 1993 Cabernet Franc by one of my favorite winemakers, Bob Foley. Alexander's well-staffed kitchen is producing classically prepared cuisine. What looks rather simple is intelligently complex, and always smartly dressed. His menu is the accumulation of 20 years of experience. The best restaurants, he noted, are the ones which focus on one cuisine. "I had to commit to one cuisine so I chose contemporary French. That is the cuisine which is similar to that of Inn at Little Washington which, although featuring a regional cuisine, uses contemporary French technique. Zebra has a deceptively simple cuisine, but we work like hell all day long to get there." Alexander is the first to admit that the dishes on the menu are not necessarily his own creation, something not many chefs will admit. The Tuna Tartare appetizer flavored with ginger and basil, for example, was inspired by a dish created by the late French chef Jean-Louis Palladin. But his execution of that dish is stunning. Another appetizer is breathtaking: a silken foie gras flan in an egg shell accompanied with a foie gras torchon with truffles, apple gelee, cornichons, and triangle of toast. The flan alone will evoke rapturous cries. If you buy Charlie Trotter cookbooks for the pictures, you'll love the presentation at Zebra. Alexander designs the food with a deft but dramatic hand. The welcoming vase salad is one such razzle-dazzle dish. The plate arrives with a thin sesame-almond basket filled with just picked baby lettuces and surrounded by splashes of honey Dijon and raspberry dressing, citrus segments, and raspberries. The basket, while beautiful to behold, is a bit difficult to cut. The entrees are even more spectacular in taste. If you can't decide, go for the tasting menu which consists of six to nine courses. Or order the "Cristo," a whimsical take on the traditional Monte Cristo sandwich. Alexander layers salmon and snapper separating the fish with a delicate shrimp mousse. Add to this a dill beurre blanc sauce, precisely cooked -- to the nanosecond -- sauteed spinach, and a red onion marmalade and you have a dish that is especially eloquent. The lamb entree was a tenderloin in juxtaposition to the more humble braised lamb shoulder, and offset by a browned celeriac puree polenta cake. This dish proved a welcome antidote to endlessly clever food seen on too many menus nowadays. Alexander never goes too far with his combinations. To end the evening you must have dessert. His pear tart is lush, lovely, and generous enough for two, if you choose to share, which you may not. Not everyone is a fan of classical cooking techniques, the shaped vegetables, and skillfully subtle sauces. And some of the cooking terms on the menu may be off-putting: rissole potatoes are fried potatoes. But anyone would have to marvel at the labor intensity of the dishes Alexander produces. Considering the labor, the dishes seem more than reasonable: appetizers range from $9 to $14, salads from $7 to $9, and entrees from $17 to $29. Zebra opened the ill-fated week of September 11, but since then they have developed a steady following. In fact, they reported, for the past couple of weekends they have been completely booked a week in advance. They also serve breakfast and lunch. Alexander's cooking is luxurious, and at Zebra he should be able to stretch his considerable talent if he doesn't exhaust himself in the first year. At least the general public, and not just the country club crowd, can savor this talented chef's work. Zebra Restaurant & Wine Bar, 4521 Sharon Road. Hours for breakfast and lunch are Monday through Friday 7am until 10am, and 11:30am until 2pm; and dinner Monday through Saturday 5pm until 10pm, until 11pm on weekends. 704-442-9525. AmEx, Visa, MC, Discover.

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