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Old Wine, New Money

Zoë, an old favorite in SoHo, gets a new chef, a new menu, and scary new prices -- but even tightwads may find themselves unzipping their wallets.

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Guess I've been distracted or simply out to lunch. I didn't quite notice how galloping greed is swallowing the last dingy corners of go-go SoHo. I shouldn't be surprised to be looking at a $300 bill for a dinner for four at Zoë with just one bottle of wine and no designer fizzy. Is it my imagination, revisiting this seven-year-old favorite and its latest chef, or has the place sprouted a few more tables? And they're jumping, cranked up with the buzz of post-orgasmic shoppers, the savvy class of tourists, and our own nouvellish rich flushed from the hunt for lofts at $900 a square foot.

Anyway, I'm a bit nouvellish myself. While I was escaping winter abroad, AOL did its latest split. So, bring on your $14 appetizer of grilled porcini and asparagus with roasted grapefruit, manchego cheese, and Nuñez de Prado olive oil. We're not in Kansas anymore. We're just occasionally in denial. And this is some of the best fussy American food in New York. It's funny too, unless you're so stuffy and pedantic you can't get a giggle out of the surf and turf -- excellent sirloin sliced and served alongside crabmeat-stuffed shrimp with a side of sensational fried rice heaped in a Chinese-restaurant carryout carton. ("Try to see it as a fish course followed by the meat course," I counsel a guest horrified by the revived concept.)

Back from a coming of age in kitchens around town and influenced by a stint at China Grill, chef Kevin Reilly, Zoë's opening sous-chef seven years ago, can't help an occasional Asian parenthesis -- as in the too-sweet Vietnamese dipping sauce for the crusty fried calamari we see getting rushed to almost every table. But all is forgiven once I've tasted his exquisite roasted scallops, caramelized yet barely jelled, in an aromatic broth with slivers of radish and jalapeño crudités, a play on the bagna cauda of Italy. A single fried squash blossom with a melt of Camembert hidden inside floats in a heady spring-mushroom soup. And the lemon spaghetti with crab, smoked bacon, dandelion greens, and fried shallots lacks only a small squeeze of lemon. The focaccia-crusted oysters in his radicchio and romaine salad deserve less of its too cloying Caesar sauce.

But these few quibbles seem minor as our quartet starts to revel in the entrées: roasted halibut with couscous-and-sausage-stuffed squid in a heady broth that tastes of smoked mussels and saffron and sheer alchemy. Rich Chilean sea bass parked on pak choy with pea shoots in a lemon-soy sauce. Sturdy and rare lamb loin with the sweet-bitter taste of roasted endive and scalloped potatoes in a miniature iron skillet. And marvelous nori-wrapped tuna, just this side of sushi, with a scallion-risotto croquette and a pastry tower topped with ruffled greens and enoki mushrooms. "My homage to Alfred Portale," Reilly later confides. "Whatever he does that is visually exciting always makes taste sense."

Maybe SoHo doesn't blink at these prices, but I'm in sticker-shock everywhere these days. At Zoë, with food this good and remarkably genial service, I must try to relax and enjoy the splurge. (Though I want everyone in restaurants everywhere to stop interrupting the conversation three times a night to ask "Is everything all right?" We'll let you know if we need a fork.)

It's definitely spring on this corner of Mercer. Reilly, whose mission is to keep Zoë's prize-winning wine list in mind as he designs the menu, is properly obsessed with the first soft-shell crabs, the season's morels and porcini, spring vegetables, squash blossoms, and asparagus (in the nude or beer-battered). As for the vaunted wines, I am stumbling through the all-American listings with numerical ratings from The Wine Spectator. I keep running into $72 and $85 and $140 roadblocks and am impressed (and chagrined) to see how many vineyards I've never heard of. The sommelier doesn't even cringe at my cry for help; specifically, my request for a red with bouquet and complexity that's ready to drink "tonight" for about $40. He returns with a Merlot the house sells by the glass as well as the bottle. It's too acidy. But his $42 Hendry Ranch Zinfandel Block 7 (love that tony grapespeak) is fruity, smooth, and no pushover, perfect at yet another $300 dinner for four.

And, as a guest observes, the house- smoked Scottish-salmon appetizer with its caviar club sandwich, barbecued chips, tiny hard-boiled quail egg, and mizuna greens could be supper all by itself. That same salmon is even better in a thick filet, grilled rare and riding a pair of delicious truffled potato ravioli in a sorrel sauce. The tartness of scattered blueberries helps temper the sweetness of honey-lavender sauce under the rotisserie duck and its confit salad. Only the night's special jasmine-rice-crusted snapper is a dud -- dull in a spring-pea sauce that cries for more acid to pep it up. Another squeeze of lemon helps.

Local merchants, artists who aren't hungry anymore, and Mercer hotel guests, some with young in tow, keep lunch lively, and even budgeteers can afford the daily special at $13 and entrées from $10.75. We tuck into lobster-and-monkfish-studded tomato risotto drizzled with gremolata butter, then lapped with an added buttery lobster broth -- high risk for the arteries, but I figure I have a chance of surviving if we all share it. Smoked onions add to the tapestry of flavors in blue-crab soup with sourdough croutons. Peppered salmon "steak frites" with sauce Diane is another riff that pleases. But our trio is not thrilled with the updated Waldorf and its too-dry turkey, nor the very ordinary burger.

Jennifer McClintick adds her own American sensibility to the dessert technique she learned at Le Cirque. Tangy fruit sorbets come in a pizzelle cone. The cream-cheese-frosted carrot cake sits in a whiskey-pecan sauce. Intense rhubarb compote and frozen strawberry soufflé say spring. Just-baked cookies, still warm from the oven, evoke memories of Mom. When you're about to move into a $3 million condo, surely a salute to Mom is worth $8. It's all funny millennium money, anyway.

Zoë, 90 Prince Street, between Mercer Street and Broadway (966-6722). Dinner, Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday till 11 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m.; lunch, Tuesday through Saturday noon to 3 p.m; brunch, Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; bar menu, Tuesday through Friday 3 to 4:30 p.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.


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