Oh, how things can change in just a few years. Bonney Lake long has sowed its culinary seeds deep in fast-food chain restaurants.
But during the past five years, restaurants such as Sushi Town, Old School Custard, Puccini's Venetian Subs and All Spices Thai have added much-needed variety in the East Pierce community.
And 2009 continued that trend, but with more grown-up offerings. Andre's Bar & Grill, which opened in May 2009, and Hop Jack's, new in August 2009, both gave Bonney Lake diners a decidedly more sophisticated experience.
And now another restaurant has joined those ranks - Zato Grill. It's a handsome restaurant with an urban vibe. And tucked into a strip mall next to the movie theater, it's an unexpected find. It opened Dec. 13.
My two visits in late December showed an impressive, but fledgling restaurant (The News Tribune's policy is to write first-bite reports of restaurants during the first two months of business; more intensive dining reports come later).
Servers, for the most part, were on their game, although some stumbles will alert diners that the staff is young and learning.
Execution of food mostly was solid, with a few gaffes - something to be expected of a new restaurant.
There is one thing, though, the restaurant nailed before it even opened its doors - an impressive interior for the locale.
Just eyeing the restaurant from the exterior - sandwiched into a very ordinary strip mall - a diner might never expect an urbane color palate or hand-painted murals reminiscent of tattoo artwork soaring up expansive paneled walls.
It's a downright swanky restaurant for Bonney Lake.
The mind behind the vibe is interior designer Sue Genty, who also designed Tacoma's Paddy Coyne's Irish Pub and Gig Harbor's Blazing Onion.
Zato Grill owner Maximo Ansola, III, who until recently owned the Desert Sun tanning salon chain and is a self-professed newbie to the restaurant industry with ambitions to expand Zato to other Western Washington locations, said he and Genty envisioned a sense of privacy and comfort.
"I love high-back booths," said Ansola. "In most restaurants you walk in, look around. You can see everything with a glance. ... You can hear what everyone is talking about."
Not so at Zato.
Oversize booths shield diners and their conversations. Strategically placed walls define the space, and add an air of the unexpected around every corner.
But how to create a sophisticated feel without alienating Bonney Lake's dining base of families with children?
That was tricky.
Ansola's solution was to offer kids crayons upon entry, and to design a kids menu elevated beyond what many restaurants offer young diners.
We found a doting staff, with servers on two different visits catering to our young, finicky dining companion.
Once diners enter the swanky lounge, the feel skews even more grown-up. Parents out on a date night sip cocktails right alongside young, single 20-somethings who've gathered to watch a UFC match on one of many TV screens in the restaurant.
Zato also recently expanded its happy hour to 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily and 9 p.m. to close daily with full bar portions at nearly half prices.
Back in the dining room, the menu is big on "something for everything." Like Andre's and Hop Jack's down the street, the food can be described as higher-concept comfort eats.
But at Zato Grill, the influence nods Asian with menu items ranging from 11 sushi rolls, appetizers of gyozas, wok-seared pork ribs and steamed edamame; and entrees such as Asian-grilled salmon.
But delve deeper into the menu and diners will find steaks, fish and chips, a Kobe burger and appetizers that are all over the place - chicken quesadillas, pulled pork sliders, crispy calamari, hot wings and hummus. For some diners, the choices, bluntly put, might be just too overwhelming.
Ansola had help conceptualizing the restaurant and menu from Arnold Shain, founder of Restaurant Group (the company also consulted for Cucina! Cucina!, Dragonfish Asian Café). Consulting chef Ted Furst helped design the opening menu. Chef Brandon Eckert now leads the kitchen with help from sous chef Jeremy Passmore.
"We were trying to grab the entire demographic with the menu and keep the price point low," said Ansola. He priced appetizers from $7-$9 and sandwiches in the $9-$12 range. Specialties such as fish and chips, salmon and chicken are $12-$15. Steaks are the big-ticket item at Zato, but still weigh in at a reasonable $16-$25 range.
Curious about the food? Here, a look at a few menu items sampled:
Sushi sampler platter ($15.85): The platter comes with a choice of four rolls. We selected a regular California roll, a steak roll (seared sirloin, grilled shiitake mushrooms, wasabi sprouts), a Bayou (fried rock shrimp, avocado, Cajun mayo) and the Zato roll (tempura shrimp, tobiko, avocado, asparagus and sesame seeds). The rolls tasted fine and the flavor components all made sense, but the rolls were thin and rolled sloppily. The kitchen staff is new, but if they want to compete with nearly Sushi Town, they'll have to nail their rolls.
Rib appetizers: Wok-seared pork ribs ($8.85) were slick with a sweet hoisin glaze in a satisfying, large portion; Texas Hold 'Em pork ribs ($8.85) were smoky-hot with a mesquite barbecue sauce treatment. Of the two, wok-seared pork ribs had punchier flavor.
Prime rib and cheddar sandwich ($12.45): Thick, grilled sourdough enveloped fat slices of prime rib, fatty around the edges. A nasal sting was delivered from a smear of horseradish and salty goodness came from a beefy au jus on the side. Fries were fried perfect golden brown.
Fish tacos ($11.45): Grilled flour tortillas were crunchy jackets for two battered cod filets with crisp red peppers, cabbage, corn, jicama matchsticks and a smear of guacamole and a zippy cream sauce.
Asian grilled salmon ($15.45): A savory-sweet glazed salmon filet arrived nicely medium, perched atop sweet ginger-scented rice and a crunchy salad of paper-thin cucumbers dosed with a rice vinegar dressing.
Ribeye steak ($21.85): A 12-ounce fork-tender steak was slathered in a bath of Roquefort butter (upon request). The butter spilled in rivers down the copious pile of garlic mashers, and also licked the accompanying crispy asparagus. Roquefort butter is a very good thing. Crispy onion straws were served on top.
Lemon chicken ($15.45): Chicken is one of those ubiquitous menu items that every restaurant is obligated to offer, but Zato notches up what could be pedestrian by sauteing a chicken breast with lively flavors: artichokes, lemon and Feta cheese. The puckery dish was tempered by smooth garlic mashers and played nicely with the side of asparagus.
Zato GrillWhere: 20602 state Route 410 East, Bonney LakePhone: 253-288-9286Website: http://zatogrill.comHours: Open from 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. daily