Back in Belltown, Restaurant Zoë was spacious and hushed, with sweeping windows and gauzy drapes. If, after a decade-plus, the decor felt less than special, Zoë remained a nearly bulletproof special-occasion place—its kitchen long committed to carefully sourced, lovely ingredients, producing generally marvelous results. Of a handful of dinners I had there over the years, only one was less than great. (Owners Scott and Heather Staples may have been distracted opening their gastropub, Quinn's, on Capitol Hill; now they run Uneeda Burger in Fremont, too, and both places have become neighborhood favorites.)
Zoë announced a move to Capitol Hill last summer. Flying Fish and Mistral had left Belltown, too—Scott Staples told the Seattle Times that the location was affecting business and that it was time "to hit the refresh button, to reposition Zoë." He preferred moving to remodeling and planned "to ease back into our urban-bistro roots, reinterpreted in a new space and for a new decade."
Zoë is in the Skillet Diner/Marjorie/Lucky 8/Oola Distillery zone now, where before all you could get was Piecora's pizza and a pitcher of beer. If you look to the right when you walk in, you might almost be back in Belltown—well-spaced and tranquil seating against a huge window, a stage set for a great date. On my first visit, I watched those tables across the big, high-ceilinged room, some remaining tantalizingly vacant; even with a reservation, we got stuck in the bar, close enough to two other parties to be on a blind triple-date. The host came by with another pair and tried to sell them on the tall table closest to the open kitchen; they demurred, and as orders got backed up and the faces in the kitchen looked sweatier and more stressed, it was clear they'd chosen wisely.
A couple weeks later, we were seated in the adjoining room, which feels like another restaurant entirely. It's like an enclosed patio, with skylights and metal chairs and a cord of firewood. The light pours in, but then so, increasingly, did the cold air, from between salvaged windows that don't actually meet. The staff asked about the temperature, but the blast from the one hanging heater only created a violently changeable microclimate.
Both the bar and indoor-outdoor seating seem right for a hamburger, and people are head over heels for Zoë's $15 wood-fired Painted Hills version. I've had a (very good, same beef, cheaper) Uneeda burger before and wanted to see what else the kitchen could do. The $32 red-wine-braised short ribs seemed wrong in price for an informal table and conceptually dated—they were unctuously rich but uninspired, overly familiar even with the update of braised nettles and steel-cut oats. The halibut ($30) was poached in olive oil; it was well prepared, but with the kitchen in the weeds, it got to the table barely hanging on to lukewarm. At both dinners, time stretched between courses; one began at the relatively calm hour of 5:45, with only one plate out by 7, and the bill finally landing at 8:30. Even when it was all too obvious things were going sideways, no explanation was offered, no treat was brought or glass of wine comped.
Our neighbors at the bar noticed us hungrily eyeballing their pork rinds ($4) at close range and were kind enough to offer us one—it was tough rather than airy and tasted dustily like Cool Ranch. The wild boar Bolognese ($10 for a small plate), a favorite from the Belltown days, had beautiful nettle pappardelle and a luxurious, spicy sauce, but the strips of Parmesan were plasticky-hard, apparently taken from way too close to the rind. Ricotta gnudi ($10) were pleasant bombs of dairy but didn't especially come together with the also-heavy lamb meatballs and tart citrus emulsion. Lamb ribs ($12) had a nice tamarind glaze, but they also had a serious layer of unrendered fat and curiously lacked an identifiable lamb taste.
With the current vogue for upscale fried chicken (the Coterie Room, which replaced Zoë in Belltown, makes an excellent, spendy sous-vide version) and the timeless goodness of a whole roasted bird (Le Pichet's burnished beauty always comes to mind), chicken breast isn't a thing you often see on a menu these days. It's got a lot of memories of weddings (and, if the audience is old enough, airplanes) to overcome. Zoë's chicken breast ($19) was flavorful but had that stick-to-your-teeth texture, with only the center bites truly moist. The meat was also cut into several pieces arrayed across the plate, with the skin retracting unappealingly and losing crackliness. It was not bad; it was not great. The undercooked—actually hard—chickpeas beneath made the experience tip into sorrow.
A side dish of rapini ($6) tasted not like garlic and harissa, but acrid, almost chemical; upon a polite inquiry about what kind of wood it was grilled over, the server said she'd check but never answered. The Chocolate Orb dessert ($8), chocolate mousse inside a chocolate shell, had a dark, sandy-textured shape on the plate; it was pure Belgian chocolate, "kissed with a blowtorch," the server said. To reduce the work of the Belgians back to cocoa grit seemed sad, not like a kiss at all.
The new Zoë has only been open two months, and service will surely find its pace. The menu, though, feels like it's trying to have it both ways—a little at the Quinn's gastropub end of the spectrum, a little from the old, formal Zoë. The $9 to $12 small plates are fairly small, which feels higher-end; there are just four larger ones (plus one special), with the strange range from almost-Uneeda-priced burger to schmancy short ribs. Wines by the bottle skew high (maybe with Belltown's remaining inventory?). With all this plus the variable seating (and climate), the new Zoë feels all over the place.