Belleme & Schwartz might sound like a law firm, but they are, respectively, the outgoing and incoming chefs at Boca Center's highly regarded Zemi restaurant. Both men boast worthy credentials: John Belleme cut his chops at Max's Grille before becoming chef/co-owner at Zemi when it opened four years ago in Max's former space. Michael Schwartz, former chef/co-owner at South Beach's inimitable Nemo, took over Zemi's kitchen in November. The transition has been relatively smooth, partly because the restaurant's other original owner, Allison, is on the job and also because both chefs have similar gastronomic sensibilities.
The cuisine remains "New American," which can mean just about anything but in this case is a cleanly delineated blend of hot, hearty, and haute ingredients of unquestionable quality, with occasional Pan Asian and Mediterranean touches added to the mix. The menu seems to lean more on Belleme's dishes than Schwartz's, but without comparing old and new menus, you couldn't differentiate between the two. This is evident from the start, as Schwartz, who used to serve sourdough bread in a round, wire-mesh basket with a dish of garlicky, white-bean purée, has inherited Belleme's foccacia strips and flatbreads served in a cylindrical wire-mesh basket and accompanied with garlicky hummus and freshly chopped black olive tapenade. While munching away on the breads and spreads, make sure to peruse the uncommon global vintages.
A sophisticated décor defined by clean, geometric lines makes a suitable foil for Belleme/Schwartz's streamlined cuisine. Dark wood floors, square structural columns, a white, onyx-topped mahogany bar, and caramel-colored, suede banquettes backed by textured beige cushioning form a warm, inviting, monochromatic space; an open kitchen in the rear and open brick oven pizza station off to one side contribute all the color one needs. Al fresco dining is available for those who rate fresh air over elegant ambiance.
Kicking off our meal in sprightly fashion was Hamachi carpaccio, six thin filets, each delicately dotted with red chili sauce, a snippet of preserved Meyer lemon (sweeter than regular), and a sprinkle of pink Hawaiian sea salt; fresh hearts-of-palm shavings provided contrasting crunch. A whole steamed artichoke is sensual finger food to share with a mate, the meaty leaves dripping with gremolata (lemon zest, garlic, herbs) and cazambola cheese, which was described by our waiter as "mild like mozzarella" but was actually a German brie-ish cheese streaked with blue (much tastier). Eight pork spare ribs greaselessly glazed in mildly spicy soy-based barbecue sauce were heartily pleasing, as was an astoundingly delicious, thin-crusted pizza crowned with exotic mushrooms (including porcini and oyster), aged Gruyere cheese, and a generous splash of truffle oil.
One of my chef/instructors at the Culinary Institute of America had a theory that goes like this: The natural, "God-given" taste of foods that have been properly grown and raised cannot be improved upon, and therefore the goal of a chef should be to prepare said comestibles in a manner that causes the least destruction to the inherently delicious flavors contained within. Zemi's bulky, ten-ounce, char-grilled filet mignon is a textbook example of this lesson; only a smattering of wild mushrooms and a side dish of potent porcini Worcestershire sauce were needed to fully complement the robust meat. It is worth noting that the beef is imported from Australia, which "properly raises" its cows by feeding them only grass -- unlike the cats, dogs, and other creatures that until recently were used as feed by this country's large corporate ranchers. Tenderloin is, of course, always tender, but this cut was even more so than usual, due to cows from down under being put down under at a younger age. Mashed potatoes on the side come by way of upper yonder, as in Yukon golds, and I don't believe it humanly possible to turn any tubers into a purée as light, smooth, creamy, and fluffy as these.
Roasted Chinese duckling was moist inside but didn't fly for a number of reasons. For one, it came crisped in all the wrong places, the tips of both drumsticks charred, soggy skin covering the breast meat also blackened; cylinders of scallion pancakes rolled around pulled duck meat were burned on top as well. A clumsy pink cherry and sake sauce was too light on sake, too heavy on fruit; a bright bite of steamed bok choy provided little consolation.
Belleme's signature lobster Bolognese was alluringly described on the menu as "housemade gnocchi with carrots, leeks, shiitake mushrooms, tomato, and truffle oil," and two chunky claws rising from the bowl looked mighty tempting on a table nearby. Still, my wife's comment that "it's sort of the same idea as your Aunt Shirley's spaghetti with salmon meatballs" brought a fleeting visual image of that dreadful dish, which was enough to steer me toward Schwartz's Indian spiced swordfish instead. The steak cut of fish was deftly pan-seared and redolent of cumin and the couscous well-flavored, but accompaniments of roasted cippolini onions and "citrus salad" (grapefruit and orange sections) seemed unconnected to both the fish and each other. Drizzles of port syrup and tarragon oil might have consolidated the components but were too parsimoniously applied to register.
Seared yellowtail snapper featured a whole, curved fish on a big, square plate looking as if it had swum into light tempura batter and then fried itself in midmotion. The succulent fish was marked into easily removable portions that flaked into fleshy bitefuls boosted by spicy kimchee glaze and a squirt of basil purée. A dome of tepid black rice did little but visually anchor the festively colored sauces, while a piquant, vinegary, red pepper-flecked kimchee and napa cabbage slaw was so refreshing that I asked to take my leftover portion home with the remainder of the snapper. Only the fish was packed.
Zemi's wait staff was not particularly alert. Tables went unwiped between courses; servers were consistently unaware of who ordered what dish. On one occasion, we sat outdoors, and rain started to fall over a limited number of diners seated beyond the awnings' perimeter. I was one of those unfortunate few and like the others got up, moved my chair, and shifted my table setting. When paying $25 to $39 an entrée, you expect better.
Another sign that waiters might need more training came when I was charged $9 for what had been an $8 baked Alaska. When informed of this, our server promised to "check it out," adding that if I was indeed correct, he would make the adjustment. You'd think he would have known the price right then and there, as the menu contains just six prepared desserts -- each $8.
No quibble with the baked Alaska itself, a tasty, un-ignited twist on the classic, prepared with a base of flourless chocolate cake, scoop of mocha chip ice cream, and blanketing of toasted meringue -- the traditional cooked version, which is denser, creamier, and sweeter than the aerated frosting found on key lime pies. Pastry Chef Stephanie Wong's apple shortbread crumble was praiseworthy as well, fresh, hot wedges of the fruit baked with buttery crust and sided by cardamom ice cream and caramel sauce spiritedly spiked with rum.
Lemon poppy seed pound cake proved considerably less satisfying, the square of cake starchy and dull, the mascarpone and honey tuile tower on top a monument to the misprioritization of height and appearance over flavor. A frizzy, misshapen nest of golden spun sugar atop a side of berry-champagne sorbet looked like a hat Björk might wear to the Oscars -- fun, frivolous, and not to be eaten.
A few menu slip-ups are to be expected when a major restaurant changes horses in midstream; such transitions are tricky. The problematic service is more perplexing, but Zemi still remains a top-drawer dining destination with a top-shelf chef.
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