THE BUZZ IS ALL OVER this latest entrant in the never-ending Miss Belltown Pageant. For a blushing ingenue—she just opened this fall—young Zo렣ertainly is popular, filling all her tables even on weeknights. Partly, this is a function of her size: Zo렩s a compact space without the yawning capacity that characterizes so many of her fellow contestants. Partly, it's a function of her looks: Along with the intimate size comes an intimate feel—low amber light and stylish appointments, not to mention the best-looking bartender in Belltown. Restaurant ZoE
2137 Second, 256-2060 dinner Tue-Thu 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 5-11pm MC, V; full bar Still, she's not nearly elegant enough to place in the evening gown competition nor sexy enough to seize the swimsuit prize. Neither is Zo렡nyone's Miss Congeniality: Although the hosts and servers are superficially pleasant and competent enough, they evince neither sincerity nor a genuine desire to please, hovering for the "how is everything?" portion of the evening only to reveal a bit of an edge when told. If Zo렴riumphs in any arena, it would have to be the brains bit of the pageant. (Pageants do have a brains bit, right?) Owner/chef Scott Staples, late of Kirkland's Third Floor Fish Cafe, can do up a plate with a broad streak of deeply creative intelligence. He's a maestro of the surprising detail, the unexpected touch. A shallow dish of beet risotto ($14), brilliant magenta and ringed with herb oil, is rescued from relentlessness by a halo of warm goat cheese—an unexpectedly inspired pairing. Fried calamari ($8), possibly the most ubiquitous appetizer in the hemisphere, is virtually reinvented with the addition of charmoula, a Moroccan spice that opens up the tomato sauce and nearly reawakens the squid. One evening's incarnation of the fresh ricotta raviolo appetizer ($8.75) was lobster sauce and a topping of leeks, shiitakes, and oyster mushrooms. Amidst these sat the plump raviolo, comfort food's own pillow, stuffed with warm, sweet cheese piqued with thyme and chervil—altogether a savory, refined, harmonious dish. Ditto a starter of charred ahi tuna ($10), as lush a fish as ever was served, here thickly crusted and deeply smoky and presented over quinoa tabbouleh and a briny kalamata pesto. Staples is clearly in his element with fish. One of the most intriguing preparations I've ever sampled was his salmon ($18.25), grilled with skillful restraint, served over a fascinating melange of French lentils, roasted beets, and brown butter. In the course of three bites of this combination I went from "How weird!" to "How inventive!" to "How'd he come up with something so right?" Staples' skills are formidable, and he's not afraid of innovation, all of which adds up to the better part of Zo맳 success—and its biggest problem. Invention is a grand thing, but to be employed only when confidence is thoroughly warranted—alas, not yet at Zo맳. One starter, albacore sashimi ($9.75), was appropriately fresh and cool but lacked the counterpoint promised by ginger horseradish (where was it?). Thus, for lack of modulation a great sounding dish went one-dimensional. THE OPPOSITE PROBLEM afflicted the oven-roasted chicken ($15.50), a wonderful preparation in which the moist meat had been crusted in garlic, coriander, and almonds to highly flavorful effect. Too bad the accompanying couscous was overly citrusy and clovey; eating it was like biting into a pomander ball. A grilled romaine salad ($7.50), a cool idea meant to bring out the flavors of the greens, only wound up making the romaine look unappealingly wizened. Complements of apples, smoked bacon, and Roquefort dressing were fine where one could locate them but didn't penetrate the lower leaves at all. Problems of conception, these, or problems of execution? Hard to say. (One dish, pan-roasted leg of lamb [$19.25] was tasty enough but served tepid, a clear problem of execution.) Perhaps it doesn't matter, for the result is the same: inconsistency. It's a devilish flaw because it afflicts the most innovative restaurants, seeming almost to chastise their most admirably creative intentions. But Zo렣learly has a base of creative hits, along with a stable of dishes that—though not inventively dazzling—were altogether solid. I'm recalling now a bowl of fine, sweet, creamy squash soup ($6); a mixed green salad with sherry Dijon dressing and bits of Roquefort ($7); a savory plate of spice-crusted pork tenderloin ($18); and a preparation of pan-seared sea scallops ($22) with corn risotto and smoked bacon. In the coming months, if Staples focuses on these solid successes and concentrates on tuning up those intriguing failures, he could really have a namesake to make his 9-month-old daughter Zo렰roud. Regarding the dessert list, he ought to figure out how to garnish the lemon tart ($6) so it's not just sitting haplessly amid a bare plate. Then he might foreground his astonishing cr譥 brl饠($6), a slab of which is served over warm brioche French toast with maple syrup and walnuts. Now that one could take the swimsuit competition.