Restaurant Review - Comfort with edges

Zoe’s food tastes as good as it looks

No, that person visible through the cutout into the kitchen squealing with equal parts delight, surprise and fear as one of her dishes suddenly ignites, sending flames shooting into the air is not Zoe. Zoe is a dog. A pug, in fact, who lives in New York. And quite a dog she must be, to have inspired such a delightful restaurant as Zoe’s Mediter-ranean Grill.

The interior is love at first sight, with its single gorgeous periwinkle blue wall; pale blue floor tiles; deep blue bud vases on the clean, cool blond wood tables, each holding a single lavender iris; blue votives twinkling, reflecting in the long mirrored wall. Low-backed beech stools (the prize-winning design resembling that juicer in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection) wrap around the short bar, the perfect spot for those eye-catching cobalt martini glasses.

Happily, the menu is as enticing as the decor. Even better, the food tastes every bit as good as it looks. Each dish comprises an array of flavors — sometimes, an astonishing array. You can indulge in a culinary orgy by making multiple selections from the Tastings and Starters courses, which, with some additions, expand into Sunday’s tapas menu.

What could be better with Zoe’s wonderful large-holed, lightly chewy bread than a small plate of fresh mozzarella with fragrant, oven-roasted tomatoes ($5.95)? Like the grilled asparagus with shaved asiago cheese ($5.95) or the artichoke and white bean hummus with flatbread ($5), the tomatoes, when roasted, become both sweet and savory.

Even seemingly straightforward things go every which way in the mouth, such as the olive tasting ($3.50). The little triangular dish in which the assortment is brought to the table is nifty-looking but really too tricky to be serviceable, what with the olive juices sloshing over the rim and onto one’s clothes. But the olives — kalamata, nicoise, provencal and Moroccan reds — bathed in olive oil and strewn with whole pepper and rosemary, can be bitter or woodsy or wine-y.

Nothing at Zoe’s conforms to trite restaurant standards. There is no lettuce in the classic Greek salad ($5.95), for instance. Not for this kitchen the mounds of iceberg lettuce one finds elsewhere. Instead, there’s a heavy presence of oregano mingling with ripe tomatoes, red onions, cucumber, artichoke, green peppers, olives and chalky, crumbly feta cheese, all tossed in lemon and olive oil. More imaginative still is a salad of shaved fennel, roasted beet and goat cheese tossed with field greens ($6.25).

Zoe’s goes not so much for textural contrast as it does for a juxtaposition of flavors. Thus, mashed potato cakes pair with goat cheese and sweet red pepper sauce ($6). Briny Mediterranean mussels in sweet cream sherry go with oniony leeks and tart tomato ($8). Sea scallops take on the flavor of their rosemary-sprig skewers, then absorb two additional tastes in the walnut- ginger butter ($8.50).

And these, mind you, are the preliminary courses.

In the main courses, the flavors are rivaled by some first-rate preparation. Topping the list is surely the seared peppered tuna medallions with tabouli and lemon caper vinaigrette ($13.95). One hardly ever finds good quality tuna in local restaurants, but here it is, presented in small, barely cooked rounds that enhance the sweetly fresh fish.

Soft-shell crab encrusted with almonds ($13.95), a recent special, was not only the fattest specimen I’ve ever seen but also the juiciest, the sweet meat bursting through the sweet, crisp almonds.

In dish after dish — rosemary grilled salmon with plum tomatoes, green onion and artichoke relish ($14.95), orange roughy with golden raisins and almonds in lemon butter ($12.95), braised lamb chops with fig and balsamic reduction over truffle potato mash with asparagus ($17.95) — Zoe’s lovingly lavishes carefully chosen main ingredients with fresh herbs and spices and beautiful, light sauces.

Still, not everything is a tour de force of flavor combinations. For the beef crowd, there’s an 8-Ounce Black Angus filet with gorgonzola butter, candied shallots and crisp potato nest (market price). For vegetarians, there’s an eggplant and grilled portabella stack with fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil ($9.95). For pasta lovers, there’s butternut squash ravioli with sage butter and shallots ($9.95), spinach pasta with artichoke, onion and prosciutto in vodka cream sauce ($12.95), potato gnocchi with almonds, pancetta, cubanelle pepper and pecorino romano ($8.95), or the simple, savory linguine with fried capers and anchovy ($7.95).

It isn’t often that food with so many different edges is comforting, too. But anything you chose here should make you smile.??