There were extreme reactions to the news that Zoe’s, which has another location in Somerville, was taking over Shalom Beijing (formerly Shalom Hunan). The Shalom customers were bitter about losing a glatt-kosher restaurant. The distant fans of Zoe’s were ecstatic to be getting their favorite dishes close to home. My own reaction, after four visits, is more mixed. What Zoe’s kitchen did well in Somerville, it does even better here. What it did badly, it does worse — such as neglecting more approachable Chinese-American dishes. This matters more in a larger restaurant likely to attract a range of customers than in a 10-table storefront, like their Somerville location, where cult customers can fill the place every night. I view it as immoral to offer dishes that the kitchen doesn’t at least try to execute well. More importantly, popular dishes could fill up the children of sophisticated customers, or they could be first steps for customers who will work up to the tripe with cilantro or the lamb with cumin. It can be off-putting, even in sophisticated Brookline, to go to a Chinese restaurant where the fried food isn’t especially good. Squid with salt and pepper ($9.50), which was over-breaded in Somerville, was almost all breading on an early visit here.
SECOND TIME AROUND: Zoe’s in Brookline is better than the original in some ways . . . and not in others.
Actually, there are some decent entry-level dishes at the new Zoe’s, but you have to pick and choose. The “lions-head pork meatballs in clay pot” ($9.50) sounds scary, but it’s three excellent gingery meatballs in a broth with some five-spice flavor and Napa cabbage: solid winter comfort food. General Gau’s shrimp ($11.95) were 10 very decent fried shrimp in a-lot-but-not-too-much breading and a sweet-sour-tomato sauce with a bit of red chili. On the lunch buffet ($6.95), the fried smaller shrimp in sweet-and-sour sauce were at least Chinese-American average. I’m not recommending this or any Chinese buffet — Indian food does well on buffets, Chinese food never does. But I checked it out to scout the more commercial dishes, and the scouting was otherwise pretty discouraging: mediocre crab Rangoon ($5.50), overly breaded chicken fingers ($5.50) and General Gau’s chicken ($9.50), and pretty good stir-fried green beans ($7.50). But the chicken wings ($5.50) and spring rolls ($3.50) — no way.
In fact, on one early visit, even some favorites from the Somerville Zoe’s weren’t as good. The stuffed tofu crêpe with vegetables ($4.95), a hot appetizer in Somerville, was here served cold and had a sour, over-the-hill tang. (My server gets points for asking me about the untouched dish, checking my complaint, and crossing it off the check.) The eggplant with garlic sauce ($7.50) wasn’t bad, but it seemed to lean harder on the hot sauce and less on the fresh slices of Asian eggplant than I remembered. Tea-smoked duck ($12.95) was still plenty smoky, but breast pieces were dried out.
So why do people like Zoe’s? Well, on some spicy and unusual dishes, it’s incredible. Double-cooked pork ($7.95) is a completely different reading of this Sichuan classic. It’s plenty hot, but most of the heat comes from the flavorful stir-fried green chilies that seep into the slices of pork with a streak of fat and over a bed of mixed vegetables. Green chilies also combine with numerous dried red chilies (don’t eat these!) and seeds in “dry diced chicken with hot chili” ($8.95) to make an incendiary flavor like coriander seed. (It may also have Sichuan peppercorns in the mix.) This dish is less breaded than the Somerville version, and even better for it. Ma po tofu ($7.50) has a milder version of this flavor, on silken tofu and ground pork. And lamb with cumin and spicy sauce ($12.95) is a terrific dish, from a Chinese Muslim cuisine we seldom see in Boston, served on a bed of fresh parsley that makes a nice contrast to a dish that is only moderately spicy.
Almost as enticing were two appetizers of cold noodles: chilled with sesame vinaigrette ($3.95) and dan dan noodles with minced pork and vinaigrette ($3.95), which differ mainly in details. Either one is a fine dish of cold, spicy spaghetti. Chopped pork ribs with the house special sauce ($9.50) is another comfort-food dish that uses five-spice sweetness on falling-off-the-bone cubes of spare rib, plenty of black mushrooms, and other vegetables.
One thing you can rely on at every meal is very good rice: already fragrant, but made even better with some of the simpler sauces, such as the light garlic-soy used on the vegetables of the day. These, too, are variable, but a recent platter of Chinese broccoli ($7.95) was excellent: stemmier but also sweeter than Italo-American broccoli. House special fried rice ($6.50) is white, somewhat oily, and filled with nice morsels of shrimp, pork, and vegetables.
The tea is weak Pouchong and the only dessert is fortune cookies. The room is quite nice, though, so no one remembers that it was once a gas station. Linen tablecloths and napkins with square plates add to the experience, and chopsticks and Western flatware are set for everyone. On a recent visit, there was even old-fashioned Chinese music, so umbrella drinks will surely follow — and maybe even lighter fried dishes.
Zoe’s Gourmet Chinese Cuisine, 92 Harvard Street, Brookline | Open Sun–Thurs, 11:30 am–10 pm; and Fri & Sat, 11:30 am –11 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access | 617.731.9778
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