Cuisine: New American , Contemporary
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Zoë Townhouse is the new incarnation of the (sadly) short-lived Jovia, Stephen and Thalia Loffredo’s upscale and elegant Italian restaurant that opened in that space in 2006. When their concept fell flat, they had to retool and reconsider their options. They hired a new chef for Jovia at first, which didn’t really do it, and so they regrouped again. What they decided was to return to what they know best: the Zoë formula (read: contemporary American food, a stylish, comfortable setting, an all-American wine list.) It had worked for 15 years downtown, why not uptown? Why not, indeed.Review By: Andrea Strong
While they began a search for a new chef, they brought in Jeffery Beers to strip down and redesign the place, transforming it from a museum-like space of adult seriousness into an easy, playful restaurant more suitable for a neighborhood looking for a regular haunt for pasta, chicken, burgers and salads—good crowd pleasing food. Down on the parlor floor, Beers’ has done a great job of brightening up the bar and lounge by opening up the kitchen, and adding a dazzling mosaic of sunflower yellow tiles and a wood-burning pizza oven to the bar (more on the pizzas that come out of that oven in a moment). Upstairs, he added exposed brick and mirrors to the walls and hung the far wall with cut raw barrels from Pelligrini vineyards for a warm and rustic wine cave effect that really turns the key in transforming the place from Jovia into Zoë.
To handle the food, they found a West Coast chef named Matthew Zappoli who was most recently executive chef at Fresh Seafood Restaurant & Bar in La Jolla. From what I found last week, he’s the right choice for Zoë North. He’s created an updated and rejuvenated version of the downtown menu with classic Zoë dishes like the crispy calamari and grilled yellowfin tuna club sandwich. But for the uptown Townhouse space, Matt offers two menus—a casual one down in the pizza bar that includes cute kobe beef sliders with Vermont cheddar, pickled jalapenos, and Walla Walla onion rings ($12), juicy beef burgers on brioche buns with hand cut fries and garlic pickles, $10.75), entrée-sized salads like rosemary roast chicken with purple potatoes, green beans and grape tomatoes ($13.75), and hand-tossed, rectangular pizza pies with ethereal crusts—light and bubbly and almost pastry like in consistency topped with bubbly toppings in simple (mushroom, margarita) to more elaborate like the one we had, a Spanish version that gets a layer of harissa-spiced ricotta topped with sheets of Serrano ham, shredded manchego cheese and circles of chewy, spicy chorizo ($13.50). It was terrific.
But Matt’s more sophisticated style of cooking was really allowed to come into full bloom in the second floor dining room, where the menu is approachable American fare, seasonally rooted, with a little bit of Asia occasionally accenting the plate. One of my favorite dishes of the night was an appetizer of tuna poke ($12)—a wide dice of Ahi is marinated with a nice heavy hand of ginger, seaweed, and soy, so the flavors are all perky and bright, served on a crisp lotus root potato chip over a bed of seaweed salad dressed with wasabi tobiko and a drizzle of eel sauce. I am comfortable saying that I’d eat this daily. His white gazpacho is also gorgeous—a seafoam green soup of cucumbers and Marcona almonds pureed into a cool and refreshing soup that’s almost soft and dewy in texture. Matt garnishes it gracefully with a bit of California olive oil and julienned radish and a pinch of microgreens ($9.75). The only appetizer I didn’t enjoy was the veal sweetbreads ($14). These are usually a favorite of mine, and while I loved the accompanying salad of fava beans, hen of the woods mushrooms, bacon, and pickled Berumda onions, the sweetbreads were not quite crispy, and instead were soft, and almost flabby, lacking any crunch or textural contrast.
Matt’s approach to fish is two-faced (I mean this in a good way). On the one hand, he does demure, gentle flavors in a perfectly pan-roasted day boat halibut topped with sweet cherry tomato confit, bedded on a mound of baby spinach and a sweet creamy puddle of wonderfully velvety “popcorn” puree ($27). It’s a delicate dish that is comfortable being shy. Personally, I’d like a bit more flavor from that fish, so I might wrap it in pancetta. But if it’s big shameless flavors you’re after, Matt’s soy-balsamic glazed artic char is the yang to the halibut’s yin. This is a piece of fish with some acidity and sweetness, a nice amount of spirit and punch, that’s treated to a beautiful orchestra of vegetables—spring peas, honshimeji mushrooms, edamame, and baby bok choy ($21.50). Loved it. And while fish is clearly a strong point, I also enjoyed the Long Island duck ($23), which he serves two ways—a confited leg and a roasted breast, on jasmine rice with plump and juicy market cherries ($23).
Matt’s counterpart in the kitchen is pastry chef Jennifer Domanski, who worked at Jovia and has transitioned to the new restaurant. She might be one of my favorite newly discovered pastry chefs. Do you like Cherry Pie? Do you like ice cream sundaes? She does too, and to get the best of both worlds she takes a slice of cherry pie, and cuts it into pieces and layers them with vanilla ice cream inside a tall pilsner glass topped with bing and sour cherries ($8). You’re given a long stemmed spoon to attack it with which makes it easier that trying to reach your entire hand (or head) inside the glass. You’ll want to get to every last bit. Her strawberry tart ($8) was also spectacular. Fresh diced sweetest of summer strawberries are marinated in honey and piled on top of little baked almond cake and topped with a scoop of tart frozen yogurt sorbet. (Look out Pinkberry, if this gets into a soft serve form, you’re dust.) And I will add that the chocolate tart is nothing short of insanity. If chocolate is your drug, you’ve just found your heroin. Smoked chocolate fudge cake is filled with salted caramel and served with a slab of homemade Toffee ($8).
As we were passing plates and figuring out what to eat next, I thought about this new Zoe North, and the way the Loffredo's handled the "failure" of Jovia. It's hard when things you believe in don't succeed, when your vision isn't embraced the way you'd like. And it's even harder when you're a restaurateur and your success or failure is such a public spectacle. And there's something very impressive to me about their ability to turn that chapter around and give the place a fresh stab at success. In this case, it seems the second time's a charm.
Neighborhood: East 60s
Chef: Matthew Zappoli
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