The Madison area once enjoyed a locally famous restaurant, La Paella, which specialized in the cuisine of Spain.
That wonderful restaurant closed more than a decade ago, but since March the city has witnessed the emergence of another Spanish-inspired restaurant, Zandru’s.
It operates out of a shiny new space on State Street, and its sleek, minimalist interior design and concise menu are appealing. The restaurant offers a mix of tables and booths, and it also has patio seating on State Street. Inside, Zandru’s has a small bar, behind which are three flat-screen TVs all in a row—the only drawback to an otherwise attractive dining room.
Zandru’s bills itself as a tapas restaurant and offers a list of small plates meant for sharing. Beyond the tapas options, there are four versions of paella that can be prepared for two or four diners. The menu also features a handful of entrees and montaditos, a Spanish appetizer similar to bruschetta.
While a few of the tapas selections we sampled were good, the paella was seriously disappointing. It would have been only a mild disappointment had it not been for the inclusion of lobster tail that was simply inedible.
We had better luck with the tapas and sampled three items: garlic shrimp ($9), a Spanish tortilla ($7) and garlic-lime chicken ($8). Each comes with a couple of slices of toasted bread to soak up the sauces.
The five plump shrimp we shared were tasty, and the plate’s savory sauce was good if quite similar to the same sauce that came with the tender chicken, which was cut into bite-sized cubes. The shrimp and chicken tapas were OK in terms of flavor, but the sauce has an MSG quality that’s tolerable in small doses but can quickly cross a line.
My companion and I agreed the tortilla was our favorite. Made of eggs, potatoes, onions and bell pepper, it arrived looking a little like an omelet and was nicely seasoned and flavorful.
As noted, without the bad lobster tail, the paella would have been acceptable but not great. It suffered from too much olive oil and was oddly lacking in a strong or distinct flavor, despite evidence of saffron and rosemary.
Zandru’s offers four types of paella. The dish originated in the Valencia region of Spain, and paella Valenciana combines Spanish rice with an assortment of green vegetables and roasted chicken, clams, mussels and chorizo ($38 for two; $76 for a party of four).
The kitchen’s seafood paella ($46 for two; $92 for four) includes scallops, mussels, calamari, clams, fish and lobster tail, with Spanish rice and a variety of vegetables. The kitchen also offers chicken paella and vegetable paella ($28 and $26 for two, respectively).
Along with our meal, we had glasses of sangria ($9 each), which seemed a bit pricey for a drink that was a tad too sweet.
Zandru’s offers two desserts, both of which we enjoyed: orange flan ($7) and bread pudding with caramel sauce ($5).
The restaurant’s service is very good, but be prepared to wait 35 to 45 minutes (as noted on the menu) if you’re ordering paella. Of course, that’s not a problem if you’re munching on tapas while you wait.
One other thing we liked about Zandru’s is its State Street location. Try to grab a seat near the front of the dining room, and you can observe the lively street life of downtown Madison.
Zandru’s probably isn’t going to knock you out with its food. But reviews in Madison newspapers have praised everything that comes out of the kitchen, particularly the paella, so we may have hit the restaurant on an off night.
Regardless, it’s a nice place to go for tapas and drinks in the heart of State Street.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.