Zola Kitchen Pioneers Fine Dining In Downtown State College
The name might look just about the same, but when Zola New World Bistro was renovated and renamed Zola Kitchen, a whole new restaurant with a whole new vibe was born on College Avenue. The rebranded eatery features ingredient-driven, New American cuisine. It is unprecedently upscale for a downtown State College restaurant in both its atmosphere and food. Zola Kitchen is utilizing cutting-edge molecular gastronomy techniques, bringing a new take on food to State College.
While the restaurant’s wine bar is not yet open as the owners await a liquor license, Zola is already serving food under a soft opening. We sent three writers to review the restaurant.
Before I dive into what will undoubtedly be a rave review of my first experience at the rebranded Zola Kitchen, I’ll quickly recap my meal. Along with some impeccable company in Noel Purcell and Melissa McCleery, we ordered a slew of appetizers to share. The wagyu beef tartare was tossed in a truffle aioli and served with a quail egg, parmesan shavings, and crostini. The whipped ricotta dip included thyme, rosemary, pear goulis, grilled figs, and toasted sourdough bread. The calamari was tossed in a soy vinaigrette with a drizzle of lime-srirachi aioli and fried cherry pepers. Lastly, a chef’s selection cheese board included honey comb, grapes, cornichon, grain mustard, and baguette.
Sure, these appetizers are a bit pretentious and expensive compared to your usual mozzarella sticks and french onion soup, but they were well worth it. The calamari was possibly the best I’ve ever had, and that’s mostly a testament to how fresh the squid tasted. The pre-appetizer complimentary amuse-bouche was a single piece of sushi with salmon and serrano ham. It was topped with cilantro, which drowned out the sushi’s flavor, but the salmon itself was magnificently fresh for a non-sushi restaurant in central Pennsylvania.
As for the other appetizers, I should disclose I’m not a cheese lover. Having said that, the fresh honeycomb and whole grain mustard complemented a pleasantly sweet, yet semi-sharp Irish cheddar unbelievably well. As for the tartare, most people are scared off by raw beef, but wagyu is the world’s most expensive beef for a reason. With the quail yolk popped and mixed with the beef atop some crostini, you’re left with a beautiful example of how tasty food can be without involving heat.
For my entree, I opted for Zola’s dry-aged rib eye, cooked medium-rare of course. It was served with wild mushrooms, potato puree, and roasted carrots. I’ll be honest. I’ve had a better steak. It was cooked perfectly, but the exterior left plenty to be desired. The criss-cross grill marks were great, but I’d prefer a well-broiled steak. If I eat a steak with grill marks, I want it cooked outside and imparted with some smokiness. But the steak was delicious, nonetheless, with some extremely deep flavor from the dry-aging process. The sides were nice, too, but when I have a plate with a large piece of steak on it, the rest is just decoration.
As for the atmosphere, Zola has the look to go along with its high-class food. The renovations brightened up the space with some nice pastel green walls and vibrant paints, all of which are for sale. Some wood paneling gives it a classy feel and the open kitchen adds the illusion of spaciousness. While I certainly can’t afford to dine at Zola Kitchen regularly, it will be my go-to special occasion spot going forward. With a seasonal rotating menu, I’ll make it a point to see what Zola has to offer every three months.
I had never been to Zola. Honestly, I never had the desire. My go-to downtown food place is Big Bowl and I have been perfectly content with that. But I thought it was time for a change. I could eat some real food for once.
When you walk into Zola, the lively green walls invite you in, and immediately make the restaurant feel bright. There’s a front alcove facing College Avenue with sliding window panels that could be closed for a private party, which feels very mature. There are these leaf-like art pieces hanging from the ceiling, and some awesome, colorful, abstract art along the walls. The back of the restaurant has an open kitchen, too, so you can get a glimpse into your food being made.
To start us off, we brought two bottles of wine, a white and a red, since the wine bar sadly isn’t open yet. The waitstaff was quick to bring us water, but a little slow on the corking. After a little while, we were ready to start with appetizers. Because we were with Noel, we had to order (almost) everything. We started with beef tartare, the cheese board, whipped ricotta cheese, and asian calamari (which the boys quickly polished off).
Everything was great. The cheeseboard had three different cheeses on it that I can’t quite recall the names of, four tiny little pickles, and a piece of honeycomb, which was the highlight. I could taste lilac flowers when I ate a piece, which reminded me of climbing my family’s backyard lilac tree growing up. The beef tartare was excellent too, served with thin sliced crostini. But for me, the standout star of the appetizer course was the whipped ricotta with rosemary and olive oil. Served with the same thin crostinis, it was creamy, flavorful, and delicate (and I got to eat most of it as the boys were occupied with the calamari and cheese).
For the entree course, I chose the black truffle risotto. It was perfectly cooked, with the rice slightly al dente and just enough wild mushrooms mixed throughout to provide a little variety. It was cheesy, warm, and filling, served with a parmesan crisp on top of it.
I love fine dining. I’m a somewhat-pretentious Long Island yuppie about food, because I want to make sure I embody every stereotype possible. Regardless, who doesn’t love a steak, a charcuterie board, and a bill they’d rather not lay eyes on from time to time? State College has plenty of great restaurants, from Otto’s to Happy Valley Brewing Company to Spat’s. However, downtown has always lacked a place where I need to put on a button down and jeans and pretend I understand what tannins are when I order a bottle of wine. Luckily, Zola has come to fill that void, and fill it with an almost-impeccable result.
My father raised me to try everything once. Consequently, my brothers and I were all chubby kids. Therefore, when I go to a nice restaurant, I like to take it upon myself to release my inner fat 15-year-old and order multiple appetizers, convincing myself that someone at the table totally wants to go in on it with me. They’re talked about at length above, but each one was spot-on.
The cheese selection was varied, but all went well with the honeycomb. The Irish cheddar, in particular, was phenomenal. The calamari was the best I’ve had in State College, and this is coming from someone from a (nominal) island and who swears by Yuk Foo’s Fried Squid at Local Whiskey. It was crispy, juicy, and flavored perfectly with just the right amount of heat. The ricotta dip with figs was the perfect balance of sweet and savory, and the wagyu beef tartare with truffle aioli and quail egg was about as simple and perfect as an app can get.
For my meal the sous vide braised beef short ribs were cooked absolutely perfectly (which you’d expect from a sous vide dish), tender and falling apart in the best way. The sauce was a bit sweet and just thick enough to pair well without overpowering, no delicate task for a red wine-based sauce. The crispy-outside, creamy-inside potato accompaniment was a wonderful balance and a good take rather than the standard mashed potatoes or polenta that are most often paired.
In the end, the bill wasn’t nearly as steep as I had expected for all of this, coming out to about $40 to $50 per person before tip. For what is, by far, the best meal in State College, I’ll gladly explain that away on my credit card bill. When my family comes to State College for graduation, I know where I’ll be taking them.