The Gallic culture with which I enjoy the greatest affinity is viniculture. Like many early winos, I rejoiced in the discovery of the French paradox, having spent decades, glass of rouge in hand, watching with bemusement as my friends learned the glories of the grape, swilling their way from Boone's Farm to Beringer and from Manischewitz Cream White Concord to chardonnay. My focus has been more companionable than critical and definitely French, but my friends' increasing sophistication has compelled me to ratchet my American wine know-how up a few pegs. No time for classes, and a several-bottle sampling at every meal would wreck both bank account and liver. So I was thrilled to discover the all-American wine list of Zoë in Soho.
Invited by jeweler friends who share a studio around the corner, I discovered a room with an open kitchen and a floor-to-ceiling wooden wine cabinet I took too little note of at first. My friends requested a cornet of the complimentary cheesy breadsticks, which occupied us as we perused a menu that changes frequently. We chose as appetizers a butternut squash soup that added the unctuous bite of goat cheese tortellini ($8.50), a lobster chowder stew-thick with crustacean ($9.75), and salmon shichimi ($11), a yummy tube of crisp-fried wonton wrapper filled with minced fish and topped with enoki and sesame-coated seaweed. But eventually I realized that my taste buds were being set up not just for the main course, but for a wine list as changeable and innovative as the menu.
A 1990 Eyrie Vineyard organic Pinot Meunier, fermented from the red grape that is the unheralded ingredient in many champagnes, jumped off this list, which came complete with Wine Spectator ratings for the oenologically insecure. It proved an excellent match for our mix of entrées. The roseate liquid worked its crystal magic with the Asian flavors of the jasmine ricecoated red snapper ($25) and the faint bite of the accompanying stir-fried watercress. It found kindred harmonies in the smokiness of the grilled salmon with lobster couscous and set off the deep intensity of the Chinese long beans curled on the top. But it went best with indeed, it positively improved a duck four ways ($22.50) that was itself dizzyingly hit-or-miss, combining a tasty leg of duck confit and sliced duck breast with a coil of strangely bland sausage and foie grasstuffed cabbage where the brassica took over.
The food excelled again on a luncheon trip. One friend savored the conceit of a grilled portabello mushroom masquerading as a burger complete with garlic pickles and crisply done veggie chips ($11.50), while another got so lost in the forest intensity of a mushroom risotto she almost forgot that her grilled shrimp ($15) were slightly overcooked. I scarfed down a lunch-sized slab of the salmon with long beans ($14.50). But then I noticed a line on the menu: "Sample our 'ABC' tasting (Anything but Chardonnay or Cabernet). Select any three 2 oz. tastes . . . $7.50." We selected, sipped, and debated the fragrance of Simi's Sendal '95. Violets or lemon verbena? We swirled, slurped, and savored the red berries in the Anapamu Pinot Noir '95 and the jamminess of the Morgan Winery '96 Zinfandel. We headed off into the crowded streets vowing to spend more time learning our ABCs.
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