Wild about Zo

High praise warranted at Seattle restaurant

Stacee Sledge

Sept 11, 2003 Sometimes, everything about a restaurant experience falls so perfectly into place that it seems like every other meal thereafter will pale in comparison. Our recent trip to Seattle's Restaurant Zo proved well worthy of such prolific praise.

For weeks, my husband and I planned this night out with our close friends Kate and Jessica, who'd been before and knew we would adore it.

So, although you could quite easily enjoy a meal at Zo for the same price as Nimbus or Calumet in Bellingham, we entered the serene space ready to spend some serious cash.

And spend we did. Kate is an educated wine connoisseur and immediately lit into the wine list. Before the lengthy night was through, we would consume two bottles of red and Kate would insist I sample her snifter of aromatic Darroze Armagnac over dessert.

The trendy Belltown eatery offers soaring ceilings, clean lines and earth tones, brought together in a balance of casual and elegant. It serves a limited but impressive menu. Chef Scott Staples' name has long been synonymous with spectacular seafood, and Zo continues the successful trend.

Formerly of Kirkland's Third Floor Fish Cafe, Staples opened Restaurant Zo in late 2000 with his architect wife, Heather, who designed the airy yet comfortable space. The eatery is named after their daughter.

Restaurant Zo

2137 2nd Ave., Seattle

Phone: (206) 256-2060

5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday

Serving: Pan-Mediterranean cuisine in a restaurant right out of the pages of a high-end food magazine.

Menu items sampled:
Chestnut leaf wrapped goat cheese $7.50 
Tempura squash blossom $9.25 
Braised veal cheeks $19.75 
House smoked hanger steak $16.75 
Pan-seared sea scallops $23.25 
Spice-crusted Alaskan halibut $23.75 
Molten chocolate cake $6 
Gianduja crme brle tart $6 
Darroze Armagnac $11

During our languid, luxurious meal of several courses, we sampled many items from Staples' menu; not a single one fell short of spectacular.

Jessica started with a "Clear Conscience" mocktail, a designer drink built around fresh tangerine, cucumber, lemon verbena, lime and soda, shaken and served in a martini glass, then garnished with a decoratively peeled cucumber slice.

The initial lip pucker from the citrus components was tempered by the smooth and cooling cucumber.

As we enjoyed our wine and waited for our appetizers of chestnut-leaf-wrapped goat cheese and tempura squash blossom to arrive, a tong-toting server made sure we were never low on Zo's house-made potato focaccia.

Looking as though they'd been served right off the cover of Bon Appetit, the appetizers were petite in size, but gigantic in flavor and texture. A round of goat cheese rested inside a grilled chestnut leaf served on a crust of crostini topped with roasted red grapes and caramelized onions. The chestnut leaf gave a smokey aroma to each bite.

Our exceptional server Joe had suggested the tempura squash blossom, and as we would quickly learn, he always steered us to the best the menu had to offer. While I'm confident that nothing served at Zo would disappoint, Joe suggested the superstar dishes with honesty and absolute astuteness about their preparation.

A small plate of three lightly battered and fried blossoms arrived presented on a mound of chvre and diced zucchini and squash, set atop a drizzle of savory tomato coulis.

As a pleasant surprise, Joe brought us an offering from the kitchen as a next course, four large silver spoons on a platter, each holding a heap of duck confit and French lentils, finished with an apple-balsamic reduction and fresh herbs.

When our entrees arrived, each was presented beautifully and with obvious attention to detail. Again, we felt as though we were eating from plates that had been whisked straight from a magazine photo shoot.

My husband enjoyed braised veal cheeks, tender pieces of meat served atop spaetzel, with prosciutto, crispy sage and pea vines. If you're a veal fan, you'll find this dish undeniably delectable.

I ordered the house-smoked hanger steak, a tender cut of meat cold smoked and served rare with veal jus and coupled with grilled summer vegetables and fingerling potatoes. The infusion of smoke pushed the flavor of the steak to another level.

Kate and Jessica both opted for seafood. The colors on Kate's platter of pan-seared sea scallops were electric. Carrot vinaigrette made a pool a vibrant yellow orange, topped with several plump, golden-edged scallops. Mounded in the center of the circle of scallops was a corn flan with smoked bacon, English peas and cippolinni onions. The flavors and textures were complex and Kate likened the dish to her wine: Both had a lasting finish.

Jessica's spice-crusted Alaskan halibut was nestled in a bed of Israeli couscous, a larger pearl-shaped grain made shades of emerald from pureed parsley and other fresh herbs.

The crowning glory to the dish was a drizzle of curry oil around the couscous that complemented the crunchy spice-coated fish but didn't overpower it. Her halibut also had the same apple-balsamic reduction we'd sampled with the duck confit.

For dessert, we decided to share the molten chocolate cake and Gianduja crme brle tart. Both were magnificent, but we raved a bit more boisterously over the cake, a warm truffle concoction with a liquid center. A dollop of peppermint ice cream shared the plate, resting on a thin chocolate wafer.

The Gianduja crme brle tart was built around a dark chocolate shortbread shell filled with silky milk chocolate hazelnut custard and topped with fresh whipped cream and fresh blackberries.

Yet another unexpected treat from the kitchen arrived just before the bill, a small plate holding four quarter-sized chocolate shortbread cookies. Each crisp cookie had been rolled in sugar and topped with white chocolate ganache and a single hazelnut, a winning combination of crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet.

Restaurant Zo is managed by the affable Tom Knowles who, after I introduced myself at the end of the night, sat down and graciously accepted our effusive compliments on the ambience, the food and our exceptional server, Joe.

Three hours after we entered the restaurant, the four of us floated out on a nearly palpable cloud of contentment, talking dreamily of our next visit to Restaurant Zo. I wonder if Kate and Jessica are free this weekend?

The Fine Print: I dine on my own dime. The opinions herein are mine alone, not The Bellingham Herald's. Agree? Disagree? Please drop me a line at StaceeSledge@hotmail.com.


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