Have you heard? The James Beard Foundation recently invited the public to submit individual nominations for the award this year! Having fallen completely head-over-heels in love with Quinn’s gastropub on Capitol Hill, chef Scott Staples has definitely been on my short list for 2008. Given that inclination and weighing my vote, I felt it was imperative to pay a visit to his original establishment, the venerable Restaurant Zoë in Belltown (at 2nd and Blanchard). Would the same ardor bloom?
Upon arriving at Zoë, you must first pass through a dark curtain which effectively demarcates outside from within. And despite the floor to ceiling windows, there is still a feeling of separation from the rest of the world, like being in a fishbowl. The lights are low and cast an orange glow, the conversations are muted, the music downtempo. The tables are thoughtfully spaced and arranged, one of those rare places where there really are no bad seats in the house.
We started with cocktails, and were served several pieces of light and fluffy rosemary focaccia with a premixed oil and vinegar dipping sauce poured from a wine bottle. The waitstaff were attentive and knowledgeable, maybe five in total who sequentially swept the table throughout the evening. I downed my glass of La Pommette, a vibrant take on a French 75, with Calvados, lemon and hard cider. It was bright and invigorating. My partner ordered the Stormy Weather, a sweet and sour vodka drink with “parfait l’amour” and one of those cocktail umbrellas turned inside out, as if caught in a windstorm. It was a nice touch, the kind of thing that makes me smile.
Restaurant Zoë serves New American bistro cuisine, which means the usual assortment of small plates, large plates and obscure meats. As we considered the menu, the kitchen extended us a complimentary amuse-bouche – a tall shooter of carrot soup with tarragon and olive oil. It was a gracious gesture, and successfully whet my appetite. We ordered the famous fresh ricotta gnudi and an endive and arugula salad with crimson pear. The pear was crisp and sweet and balanced with an outstanding mellow Stilton, a light coating of honey vinaigrette and candied walnuts. The ricotta gnudi was like eating goose down pillows from heaven, served in a balsamic emulsion and parmesan butter sauce, with fried sage and truffle salt. That dish unquestionably lived up to the hype.
For the main course, I ordered wild boar bolognese with arugula pappardelle, chili flakes and shaved chunks of parmesan. The ground boar was rich and meaty, the flat green ribbons of pasta were expertly plated in coiled layers and the bolognese was explosively hot. The dish was absolutely delicious and had the intense heat and flavor that I crave. In pointed contrast however, my partner’s butternut squash risotto was an unequivocal disaster. The risotto was undercooked, which is like a hate crime against rice. The squash was served in unattractive cubes, and the lobster mushrooms (which are positively ubiquitous on menus this season) were uninspired. The entire dish was bland, and almost inedible. It was kind of shocking. From such lofty heights the fall is that much further, the failure that much more noticeable.
But one bad dish does not a bad restaurant make. And Restaurant Zoë is definitely worth a visit (and Scott Staples is still on my short list for the James Beard award this year, although he may have just been edged out by Scott Emerick, he of the colossal cassoulet). Honestly, Zoë did not capture my heart the same way Quinn’s does, with it’s vibrant energy and daring menu. But for a romantic evening with some original food, I’d say it ranks with the best.
Compliments to the sommelier as well, who recommended a reasonably priced, stellar bottle of Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley – Cristom Mt. Jefferson Cuvée. Another one to keep in mind. We finished the bottle over an autumn ice cream sandwich – pumpkin chocolate chip ice cream bookended with gingersnaps and covered in single malt butterscotch. It tasted like the season which inspired it, and as I parted the curtains to return to the real world, the sweetness on my lips punctuated the smell of the fallen leaves in the night air.