Understated Charm: Zephs’
Chef Vicky Zeph outclasses a dull room with sophisticated, inventive food.
Photos by Cathy Pinsky
Zephs’ delightful offerings include Greek shrimp saganki, baked in a sauce of tomato, scallions, white wine, and oregano and topped with grilled French feta cheese.
We have a glamorous friend who opines, as he jets off to Paris for weekend tables at Arpège, that he actually prefers Michelin one-star restaurants. Why? “Because the two-star restaurants are always trying too hard for three stars, and the three-stars are so desperate to stay on top. There’s a lack of identity, of comfort, there. But a one star? They’re happy. These guys like what they’re doing.”
The same could be said of 19-year-old Zephs’, where Chef Vicky Zeph and her brother, Michael, oversee a modest showcase for her delightful, often witty, food. Zephs’ 40-seat dining room, located in a charming Peekskill brick building (a turn-of-the-century charcoal factory clinging on a slope above the Hudson), verges on hotel anonymous, with blond wood finishes and vaguely art nouveau-patterned curtains. However, the kitchen—which is visible from the street through large, storefront-like picture windows—is delightful. Unusual for today’s cooking bunkers, Zephs’ kitchen is sunlight-filled, with tidy plants parked by the glass and a boom box flanked by a scattering of CD cases. The stove, as weathered and worn as an old pair of clogs, is cozy and welcoming, as is this kitchen’s relaxed pacing. To cooks accustomed to gleaming, unspeaking, militaristic open kitchens (where you can’t even swear if you burn your hand), Zephs’ homey kitchen looks like heaven. Standing on the sidewalk and looking in, we can’t blame this talented chef for not striving to get her mug on the Food Network.
As befits a confident kitchen, there’s a lot of unforced play on Zephs’ world-spanning menu. On a recent night, we found a St. Patrick’s-themed starter of “pig in a poke”—less like American pigs in a blanket, and more like an Anglo-Irish sausage roll. These deliciously spiced, finely ground house-made Irish sausage sections arrived in a buttery, crumbly, potato-based pastry wrapper. The result was far better than any of our youthful, hangover-cure breakfasts consumed on London’s tube—yet Zephs’ version was evocative of that Anglo-Irish standard. Like her “Carvel Flying Saucer”-inspired house-made ice-cream sandwiches, the dish is a reverent take on a nostalgia food, though filtered through Chef Zeph’s classic French training and fine palate.
A perfect ending to the meal is the Bear Mountain cake: thin layers of cake layered with coffee buttercream and chocolate whipped cream.
Freely seasonal on her frequently changing, short menu, Zeph offered three lamb dishes on a single spring night. A starter of köfte, miniature finely ground lamb meatballs, dipped into heady Moroccan spices with assurance, while a main of roasted leg of lamb with a fat wedge of well-crusted potato cake and spring greens (including lovage and ramps) felt comfortingly European. The last dish, so simple, perfectly seasoned, and delicious that it stilled conversation in mid-sentence, arrived strewn with crisp, fresh green chickpeas, whose grassy, pea-like flavor is a revelation after dried versions. Zeph, who tends three plots in a local community garden and also uses herbs she grows at home, often adds seasonal flourishes to her dishes. As we were writing this, chervil was making its way into her garden, and thus, into her kitchen.
Though its menu changes frequently, Zephs’ standards, like duck confit, usually can be found, and—though she’s probably been cooking this dish for the entire 19 years—it still arrives carefully, almost flawlessly, executed, with a thick, crisp, golden crust yielding to falling-off-the-bone, creamy flesh. A changing complement of fruit compotes keeps the dish lively, and all are well seasoned to brighten such rich, fatty duck.
Raves…but there are a couple of problems at Zephs’. Besides an Anywhere, USA, dining room (that lessens the impact of its highly personal menu), the quality of glassware, plates and, especially, the cutlery, seem unequal to the charms of this food. However, prices at Zephs’ are amazingly reasonable. With starters and desserts at about $8, and mains in the $20 to $30 range—combined with a small, well-selected bottle list with most labels under $50—it’s one of Westchester’s least expensive spots for food of this quality. However, complimentary salads with U-Pick dressings make meals at Zephs’ feel down-market. We wonder if complimentary greens are a pacing strategy to avoid stressing this two-person kitchen.
Desserts are not to be missed, though sometimes especially exciting dishes sell out late at night. (We almost wept, after a delightful meal, when we learned that the Boston cream pie was sold out.) Highlights include a smile-inducing licorice ice cream, whose powerful, creamy evocation of the mouth-blackening chews of our childhood was perfect. Also good was a subtle, tangy, mousse-like cheesecake.
In short, we’re huge fans of one of Westchester’s most original chefs, and even if we have to bring our own fork, we’ll return with glee. Sadly, the secret’s out among her many fans. Remember to call ahead on weekends, as walk-ins might be greeted by a full dining room.
638 Central Ave, Peekskill
Dinner Wed to Sun 5:30 pm on
Appetizers: $8; entrées: $23-$31; desserts: $6.50
★★★★—Outstanding ★★★—Very Good