It's a cunning ploy, and it's Design 101: Less is more. Once you do take notice, you'll marvel at the sophisticated restraint used in the rest of the space, with its dark-stained wood floors, mahogany bar, bistro tables, and open kitchen. The stark geometry of the interior is perfect for setting off its one luxury -- suede-upholstered banquettes that extend from floor to ceiling, accented with pillows that support the diners' backs. For a mod, urban kind of eatery, Zemi is astoundingly comfortable. (Hallelujah. I'm not the only diner out there whose butt's getting a little generous to perch on a tiny steel seat.)
Like the décor Zemi's fare seems to have been thoroughly designed with deceptive simplicity in mind. And as with the light fixture, one solitary note stands out in the best of chef-proprietor John Belleme's dishes: the main ingredient. In the Prince Edward Island mussels appetizer, for instance, it wasn't the chili peppers, the coconut milk, the kaffir lime leaves, or the basil that took the spotlight. These elements combined to make a sauce that perfumed the shellfish with Thai flair, but it was the mussels themselves -- an enormous pile of small, plump nuggets served in their glistening black shells -- that grabbed our attention. Unquestionably fresh and irresistibly good, the mussel dish suggested that Zemi, despite its Boca Center location, could be a bistro in mall clothing.
Unless you're a Hemingway-type diner, inclined to make a meal of only the mussels, a bottle of chilled white wine (say the King Estate pinot gris) and your notebook, it's a good idea to go the multidish route. Then you won't miss out on an interesting lobster won ton soup. Its shiitake mushroom broth, accented with lemongrass and an infusion of what tasted like sesame oil, was just a little too greasy and flat for me, but the dumplings themselves were delicious. Each of the five won tons featured a tender noodle exterior, bursting with soft, minced lobster meat that had the sweetness you associate with northern, cold-water crustaceans.
Should the won tons whet your appetite for Maine lobster, you could follow the soup with Maine lobster Bolognese over gnocchi. I thought the label something of a misnomer, since Bolognese sauces utilize ground or minced materials and the lobster in this sauce was not even coarsely chopped. But when we came across two whole lobster claws, we ceased to care what the dish was called. Flavored with a buttery broth that included leeks and chopped carrots, the lobster was served over homemade quarter-size gnocchi, which had been quickly pan-fried to give them a crisp edge. The combination of textures was ideal. While this dish appeared light at first, we quickly discovered that impression was illusory -- the richness of the lobster kept us from finishing it, alas.
We had the same difficulty polishing off a main course of day-boat scallops, a half-dozen nicely browned sea scallops rimming a mountain of white truffle-scented mashed potatoes and a garnish of sautéed pea shoots. Sea scallops can easily look like a skimpy meal, since most fine restaurants won't serve more than six on a plate. (Some offer as few as three.) However, if the sea scallops are any good, they should have a lobsterlike consistency along with a mild richness, both of which satisfy the palate quickly. These were, and did, the half dollar-size disks beautifully cooked and flavored with a thyme-lemon nage (an aromatic shellfish broth). And big eaters can always demolish the creamy potatoes, which were themselves deceivingly filling.
When the main ingredient is the diva of the show, though, a dish can fail just as easily as it can succeed. We encountered problems with the fritto misto starter, a trio of deep-fried rock shrimp, baby squid rings, and kalamata olives. The shrimp and squid were wonderfully fresh and tender, and the pitted olives appropriately pungent. Unfortunately we couldn't taste them without stripping off the puffy, crusted batter, which in turn had been too heavily salted and peppered. An accompanying rémoulade was also very salty; as a result, the whole dish had a Sahara-like effect on our palates.
Similarly an entrée of wood-roasted Bell & Evans chicken had been destroyed as effectively as the U.S. submarine in U-571. Forget wood-roasting -- the chicken was so crunchy and dry that it tasted like it had been firebombed. Understudies of roasted, cubed potatoes, whole asparagus, and a rosemary jus couldn't do much for the poor bird. A 16-ounce pork T-bone suffered a similar fate by being grilled just a little too long, which made it tough and stringy, especially near the bone. In this case, however, mashed potatoes sedately flavored with roasted garlic, a steaming bunch of sautéed leaf spinach, and a juicy ginger-pear compote served amply as substitutes.
Since service was infallibly professional (again, hallelujah), our waiter informed us midway through the meal that a chocolate dessert soufflé would take 20 minutes to prepare. Would we care to order it now? We cared. And while the soufflé was more like a warm chocolate cake with a molten center than a fluffy, egg white confection you need to whisper around, it was still a cocoa-rich treat. We were less pleased with an apple brioche tart, which was a little too tangy and had been topped with ice-flecked cinnamon ice cream.
Despite a couple of less-than-stellar dishes, Zemi, which means any number of things -- luck, charm, excellence -- depending on what cultural heritage you plumb for the definition, continues in the fine-dining tradition set by Maxaluna and Nick and Max's. Perhaps this isn't surprising, given the pedigrees of the co-owners. John Belleme, a protégé of Mark Militello, headlined Max's Grille, another signature Dennis Max eatery, for years. Managing partner Allison Barber did the same. It remains to be seen whether these two will put their individual stamp on things; for now, the restaurant still feels like a Max. But the fertile ground plowed here has plenty of potential for growth.