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Omnivore

Star-Crossed

The Signs Are Mixed At Zodiac


Christopher Myers

Zodiac (not this one. closed)

This location is closed

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 1/28/2004

For patrons of the Everyman and Charles theaters, the recent opening of Sofi's, a creperie adjacent to the Everyman--the flour is still settling--has expanded the choices for pre- and post-theater dining, which had been pretty well limited to Tapas Teatro and the Zodiac. Of those two, Tapas Teatro has been reminding us of that old Yogi Berra line: "No one goes there anymore, it's too crowded." And I'd for a while been hearing good things coming out of the Zodiac. It felt like a good time for a revisit.

As befits the neighboring offshoot of the Club Charles--still and always the city's epicenter of effortless hipness--Zodiac has retained its smart good looks, which amount to a kind of diner chic: aqua banquettes, tile floors, nifty lighting fixtures. But it's way, way too bright in here, and keeping it so feels more like a deliberate choice than an oversight. What's with that?

The menu itself is all over the planet. In a good way. There's a thread of Creole inspiration, and various other dishes have roots in Mexican and Greek kitchens. The most noteworthy thing about the menu is the range of options for vegetarian and vegan diners, from a wild mushroom lasagna ($14) to "design-your-own" pizzas and quesadillas, with soy cheese on hand as a substitute for mozzarella. We made our dinner out of appetizers and heavy-duty entrées, but we could just have easily settled for ordering from the selection of sandwiches--crawfish cake ($9), hamburger ($8), chickpea burger ($8)--or sharing a pizza. And I think when I go back, that's what I'll do. The entrées we had were OK, but we found them just a little expensive for what they were.

I'd be happy revisiting any of the three appetizers we tried--the cheese-stuffed fried olives ($7), the Zodiac duck ($10), and the crawfish and andouille vol-au-vent. Served in a martini glass, the olives were a smart variation of chile rellenos. When you bit into the breading, warm cheese squirted and big olive flavor opened in your mouth. They were fun, and didn't much need the accompanying dill dipping sauce. Duck appears numerous times on Zodiac's menu, and based on our appetizer the kitchen has a good handle on this tricky bird. Here, the duck is pan-seared and served with roasted shiitake mushrooms. Half-moons of two sauces--a sweetish red chile purée and a much better arugula pesto--are presented for dipping. Best of all, the duck itself held onto all of its good fatty taste.

The crawfish and andouille mix benefited from the spiciness of the sausage and the confidence apparent in the white wine cream sauce. This tasty dish had us wondering about some of the other Creole dishes that we passed up--a mussels appetizer ($8), a shrimp entrée ($18), and a vegan dish with eggplant, tofu, and rice ($15).

The entrées we did order, though, earned less love from the table. There wasn't anything off about what we had, but nothing really made us take much notice--no one said "Here, you have to try this!" about anything. I'd still like to think we just ordered stupidly--the inevitable result of trying to mix an Aries with two Cancers and a Gemini.

For instance, Neptune's pasta ($18), which tossed crab, shrimp, and mussels with linguine in a marinara sauce flavored with Old Bay, turned out to be exactly as uninspiring as it sounds, and the kitchen can hardly be blamed for delivering exactly what was promised. On the other hand, the grilled New York strip ($18) and Merlin's chicken roulade ($16) didn't come across as well as they sounded on the menu. Maybe the steak didn't melt in the mouth, or the chicken's rosemary-cornmeal crust didn't make much impression, and maybe both dishes were overwhelmed by too much of the starch of the day--a heaping pile of sour cream and butter mashed potatoes that threatened to swallow up the meat and the lovely French green beans.

Our one vegetarian selection--Concepcion's vegetarian mole enchilada ($16)--offered a good illustration of what happens when sauces intended for meat are applied to a meatless mélange: not much good. A good mole calls out for juicy poultry--the sweetish version here just didn't gel much to the corn, black bean, and cheese mixture stuffed inside the corn tortillas.

For dessert, the Turkish apple pie ($5) demonstrated once again that any creation that begins with the deep-frying of bread (in this case, pita) and ends with the application of ice cream will always be a good thing. At the risk of repeating myself--typical Aries--the Zodiac is still a reliable option for pre-movie or pre-theater dining, but until and unless you find an entrée that you truly love, I'd get to know the sandwiches and pizzas.

What's your sign?: omnivore@citypaper.com.

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