The newly renovated dining room at the Marriott hotel's Zebulon's Grill and Tequileria is awash in Southwestern subtlety. Warm reds and cornflower yellows complement a dark river-rock centerpiece with water features. The trickling sounds drown out other diners and offer a nice white-noise effect.
It's an elegant backdrop for the high-end Southwest-style cuisine. Often confused with Tex-Mex, this is purely New Mexican: light and fresh, mixing with the robust. There's also a heavy emphasis on regional tequilas and tequila-inspired cocktails.
We opted to sample the martini enlodado ($9), a dirty martini with the vodka replaced by Cuervo 1800 and Spanish olives. It proved a tad strong for me, and my husband's post-taste hesitation proved telling to manager Joseph Conrad. He reformulated the cocktail with a splash of fresh lime juice, which not only brightened the flavor but fused perfectly with the tequila and salty olive juice.
Surprised to hear we were locals, Conrad let us know this was only his second night serving from the new menu. (We'd been told the menu had been ready for weeks.) Seeking continuity, the north side restaurant had to wait for the hotel's annual in-room dining guide reprint before it could unveil the new eats.
That said, the menu hosted a surprising mix of ingredients and flavors. Priding myself on being a crab-cake authority, I found that Zebulon's version ($8.95) offered a nice crunch and delicate center without a lot of filler. The accompaniment of sunflower sprouts, sweet roasted corn relish and chipotle aioli shone.
My husband's blue-corn-dusted snapper escabeche ($19.95), with mango rice and tangy vegetables, was deliciously moist.
I couldn't help but go for the prickly duck ($24.95), seared medium with a quinoa pudding and chayote (a pear/apple-type fruit) slaw and prickly pear molasses. A plate of contradictions, it offered a healthy quinoa with creamy fontina cheese, while the lightly dressed chayote seemed to dance with the perfectly cooked duck breast.
At this point, I was inadvertently outed when the manager brought out the chef to greet us. Chris Adrian, formally of La Petite Maison and 32 Bleu and the creator of this fine menu, knows me. (Disclaimer: On my followup lunch visit, I did my best to avoid detection until meal's end, so as not to receive special treatment.) Overall, service ranged from extremely attentive at dinner to quite laid-back during lunch.
Both visits showed well thought-out items like the carb-conscious BBQ bacon-wrapped shrimp, large and juicy, and the shiitake salmon (both $19.95) with orange-scented sweet potatoes and tangy grilled cactus.
As for desserts, both ordered to go, the French apple tart ($5.95) was wrapped in cellophane, not dressed in the crme Anglaise and caramel the menu promised. However, the flourless chili chocolate cake ($6.95) with chocolate ganache, infused with chiles and garnished with Swiss dark chocolate, hit all the right notes probably the best dessert I've had in the past year.
Zebulon's has all the ingredients to become a welcome addition to the Springs' Southwestern scene, but one big challenge: the hotel pricing. Without a per diem and a corporate card, locals may not stomach shelling out the cash for a meal, even if it's this fun, innovative and fresh.