Restaurant Zoë Returns, on Capitol Hill
Reflections on an updated Seattle classic.
1318 E Union St, Capitol Hill, 206-256-2060;
At the Threshold
For a person to love a restaurant, really love it, a few things need to happen at the door.
When I walked into Restaurant Zoë, whose garden arbor entry makes the corner of 14th and Union feel like the Napa Valley, it smelled beguilingly of pecan and applewood smoke. The 12-year-old host greeted me with professionalism and a smile. (Okay…but she couldn’t have been a day over 21.) The place simmered with energy, the open kitchen in back of the bar noisy and warm, the tables filled with an all-ages mix of urbanites in various permutations of come-as-you-are. People looked planted and content, which is one way of saying the place felt like it had been here 20 years, rooted as the patio vines.
Zoë Wasn't Always on Capitol Hill
In fact it hasn’t been here six months. This Zoë is the second iteration of a restaurant Scott Staples launched 11 years ago in Belltown, beloved for its effortless metrosexual swank, its prescient focus on charcuterie and cocktails, its detailed and sprightly way with Northwest food, its careful service. To my mind there was something a little too careful about the cooking—a little punch pulling—with food that frequently lacked the courage of its flavor convictions.
Judging by the crowds, it was clear that no one agreed with me.
The Big Move
In time Staples grew weary of Belltown and the druggies and panhandlers whose presence made it necessary for night hostesses to be walked to their cars. The culinary epicenter was shifting to Capitol Hill, and indeed Staples had already opened his second restaurant, Quinn’s gastropub, at the corner of Pike and 10th. So like Tamara Murphy (Brasa, Terra Plata) and Donna Moodie (Marjorie) before him, he relocated east, and into the warehouselike former home of La Panzanella on Union. With the help of a group of “founding diners”—i.e., investors who prepaid for discounted meals, the dernier cri in restaurant funding (Luc, Skelly and the Bean)—Staples and his wife Heather refashioned the space and relocated their firstborn.
Literally. Zoë is named after their 12-year-old daughter; Quinn’s their nine-year-old son.
How New Zoë is Different From Old Zoë
“It’s like when you get out of an abusive relationship and only then do you realize how bad it was,” Staples now says about the Belltown years. Make no mistake: Union is still the urban thick of things—you’ll know it on your fourth go around the block in search of parking. It’s just that now the person peeing outside the restaurant is a toddler, whose hipster Capitol Hill mom is looking furtively around to make sure no one is watching—as I was, amused, from my table in the airy, window-wrapped space.
It’s a looker, crisply elegant like Zoë pére but with a hardy industrial patina—mottled glass pendants, gunmetal fixtures, raw wood rafters—conveying a bold manliness. If the original Zoë and Quinn’s had a love child, this would be it. It’s more casual than the original Zoë, and not just because the music is louder. An adjoining room opening onto the garden, what Staples calls the four-seasons patio, has a sunny, winsome charm and a boho-farmhouse vibe. Salvaged windows slide open in summer.
The result is a restaurant with palpably distinct mood zones: main room for serious dining, bar for dropping in, sun-house room for girls’ night out, and so on. But what will be gloriously breezy this month was a temperature challenge this spring; one night a party of six women sat down, took off their coats, opened their menus, shivered, pulled on their coats, laid down their menus, and left.
Why They Shouldn't Have Left
Dishes arrive so gorgeously composed upon their white rectangular plates that I had to take an art appreciation moment before plunging fork in short ribs. When I did, the red-wine-braised meat slumped into luscious heaps over steel-cut oats piquant with fresh nettle puree and a marmalade of sweet smoked onions. Rich, original (nettled oats?), rife with spring. This chef knows his stuff.
James Sherrill, who landed at the original Zoë by way of Campagne and Crush, then San Francisco’s heralded Aqua, has the fullest confidence of his boss—and a bolder hand with flavor. His menu speaks with a decided French accent; his compositions tend toward rustic, with lots of charry things over farro or lentils or quinoa. He’s altogether unafraid of fat; big leafy salads drip with smoked egg yolk and duck gizzards and thick chunks of cheese.
A loose steak tartare showcased Sherrill’s inclinations. Painted Hills steak was chopped coarsely with onions and cornichons and brightened with citrus, then served with a quail egg and fingerling chips over a smoky puree of grilled spring onions. Tiny cubes of Banyuls gelee weren’t preciously calling attention to their modernist cred as much as melting their sweet counterpoint into the tart, herby meat.
Out of two big dinners our very favorite dish came from the small plates list: lamb ribs, cooked sous vide for 24 hours, then lightly smoked in the kitchen’s cold smoker. A pass over the wood-flamed grill and then a brisk tamarind-juniper glaze finished the tender (tender!) meat, presented over black lentils ribboned with delicate strips of celery.
We gnawed the bones clean.
For all the mod grains and postmod prep, Restaurant Zoë hits the occasional dated note. Bread comes with balsamic dipping oil, which feels weirdly ’90s. (Much more 2012 would be a spendy high-fat butter you pay extra for.) Specials happen, but the menu doesn’t change as often as is customary among Zoë’s peers.
Neither of which is necessarily a criticism. Assuredly not a criticism is what one sees in the service, which derives from an old-school model currently in the process of dying. Waiters were consistently attentive, and not in a panting, hi-my-name-is sort of way. Both of our waiters communicated their availability without hovering. They shared deep food knowledge without lecturing.
Best, that old saw about the customer being in charge is actually in play in this house, with waiters given full authority to dispense little nibbles if a table appears to need it. One night, aging a little between courses, we got a dollhouse-size cast iron skillet of crackling sauteed ramps. Another night, apparently just because, we got a little dish of poppable fried chickpeas.
Other Things Servers Did
“I’ve just been informed there are only two halibut specials left in the kitchen, and they’re both mine to sell!” one server breathlessly announced, the used-car-salesman shtick evened somewhat by her conspiratorial delight in offering them to us.
One server bullshat responses to my leading questions (“So is this a celeriac puree?”) with wan acquiescence, leaving me on my own to determine that it was in fact an onion soubise. He later redeemed himself with a correction—the least he could do, but more than many would.
Knives slid off the curvy edges of many of the plates. This isn’t something a server did but it is absolutely a service issue—particularly annoying in white-pants-and-sandals season.
Dessert amounts to diminutive exclamations like salted caramel macarons or Valrhona chocolate bourbon bonbons, diminutively priced at $4. Just what you want after a rich dinner. A fennel pollen–pine nut ice cream was the best of the lot.
What the Burger Means
The Zoë-Quinn’s love-child thing applies even more to new Zoë’s food. To wit: Old Zoë’s highbrow focus on charcuterie is replaced at new Zoë by a good old wood-fired Painted Hills burger with balsamic mushrooms and Taleggio cheese and pepper aioli. While it is true that no restaurant dares open post Great Recession without its 15-buck burger, it is even truer that new Zoë is, at its heart, a Taleggio burger kind of place.
I dare you not to love it.