If anything, versatility was forced upon the two brothers from Michigan upon undertaking Zanata restaurant in Rockwall seven years ago. Quickly running out of cash in their pursuit of their dream, Kevin and Al Lefere made a decision: it was time to get creative. Their wood-fired oven, around which they were going to construct their kitchen, would become their only method of cooking food. No stovetops, saute stations, grills or conventional ovens: every piece of food cooked at their restaurant would be cooked in a 900-degree, hickory-fueled inferno.
“Doing the oven was more expensive than we anticipated, and we just kind of started running out of room and it ballooned from there,” Kevin recalls with a laugh. “So we just started creating our dishes with the oven. Stuff like paellas – one-pan dishes that all cook together, that put all the flavors together.”
What they ended up with was a menu full of Mediterranean-inspired dishes from Spain to Hungary to Morocco, all served in their open kitchen with the oven, appropriately, as a featured centerpiece. In the six years since it’s opened its doors, Zanata has opened a second location in Downtown Plano (with a more conventional kitchen) and has highlighted its comfortable, easygoing environment, accessible and varied drink selection and warm atmosphere as complements to their wood-fired focus.
“We want it to be a complete dining experience and people are coming to have a good time, have a drink, hang out with their friends or family,” says Al. “It’s more of an experience than it is just ‘let’s go out and get something to eat.'”
The atmosphere, naturally lit through large windows at the front of both restaurants, is relaxed and inviting, and the Leferes make it a point to urge their staff to remember every customer who walks through, whether they’ve been there a dozen times or just once. The wood-fired oven is uncommon, but they believe it is the service and welcoming nature of the restaurant itself that truly sets it apart.
And of course, nothing is more welcoming than a good drink or glass of wine, and that’s where beverage director Curtis Schaibly comes in. Keeping it in the family, Curtis is the Leferes’ cousin, and has overseen a development of a drink menu that is both adventurous and accessible. The drinks are focused on a ‘back-to-basics’ mindset and feature a number of pre-prohibition cocktails as well as newer creations. Bourbon-based Old Fashions and the gin-centered Aviation are a couple of the more traditional examples, while the refreshing ‘English Spring’ is one of the newer offerings. A substantial list of wines can be had from Australia, France, New Zealand and Napa and all points in between, and the selection of craft beers is significant.
“We wanted to have something for everyone, and it’s even that way with the entire experience. We can have customers come in and get a salad and a water for lunch one day and walk out for less than ten bucks, and then a week later they’ll come in with a few friends, order a couple bottles of wine and steaks and just have a this big celebratory dinner,” says Kevin. “I don’t want to say it’s a neighborhood watering hole, but it’s got that feeling where you can just come in and be comfortable, whether it’s ordering a salad and a water or a steak dinner with a bottle of wine – or even just a drink after work.”
What seems clear is that the Leferes built their idea around the ingenuity that the wood-fired concept necessitated. Between learning to make pizzas, paellas, breads and meats in a screaming hot oven to bringing the concept to a new location in Plano, they have striven to find what the neighborhood likes and bring it to them – not to impose their ideas on the neighborhood, but to find out what they like and bring it to them.
Of course, the process itself may involve a little creativity.
“The first three or four months, we just burned stuff constantly,” Kevin recalls with a laugh. We were just tweaking things and messing with recipes. If you look at our menu in 2007 versus what it is now, it’s a different restaurant. We’ve evolved so much.”
It’s a constant evolution around a fiery-hot flame that has made Zanata a staple in both Rockwall and Plano, and it is that constant creativity – along with attention to detail – that will keep the fires burning.
“The oven forces us to think outside of the box,” says Al.
It’s a force that seems to be working.
by Rich Vana