You could say that certain elements must be in place for me to order a seafood entree. I'm mindful that farm-raised fish has come under closer scrutiny, so most salmon is off my radar. But my bigger concern is boredom. Not enough flavor.
Boring is not a word you can ever apply to chef Michael Schwartz, who came to Zemi six months ago. He made a name for himself at Miami Beach's Nemo and Shoji Sushi and then spent some time at Beach House Bal Harbour in Surfside. His experience with Asian flavors is everywhere on the Zemi menu, which seems to suit the Zen-like elegance of the dining room. He has brought some remarkable changes in just half a year.
Which brings me back to crispy kimchi-glazed whole yellowtail snapper ($28). Served with sticky black rice and Korean-style kimchi cabbage slaw, it sounded intriguing. Our server -- with whom it seemed possible we could discuss food and cooking for hours -- didn't do a hard sell, but she certainly convinced me that this was a winner. Yellowtail has never been more interesting.
Schwartz's appetizers are just that: intriguing dishes that whet the appetite.
Mahogany-glazed pork spare ribs ($11) are better than any Chinese restaurant, in part because they start with such meaty ribs. The crispy jumbo lump crab cake ($14) is golf ball-size and served with an over-the-top buttery carrot ginger sauce. Foie gras ($18) is pan-seared and served with pineapple and cherries, a preparation I remember from Nemo. Be careful of the heat in the yuzu chili garlic sauce that accompanies crispy calamari and rock shrimp ($10). You can cool your mouth with a slice of exotic mushroom pizza ($13) topped with caramelized onions, thyme, gruyere and truffle oil.
Schwartz takes some big chances, and they don't always work with main courses. A 14-ounce Angus strip steak ($34), for instance, is sauced au poivre, but it is far too sweet. And is it possible that we can taste uncooked flour in the sauce? The steak comes with an individual-size potato pot pie that is comfortingly delicious. Maine lobster Bolognese ($26) with gnocchi was also a bit disappointing. Making this classic sauce without meat is always risky, and here the taste is thin.
The wood oven-roasted 12-ounce veal chop ($36) is remarkable, especially with its accompanying goat cheese fondue. But seafood seems to be Schwartz's specialty. There's the killer yellowtail and pan-roasted day boat scallops ($29). The scallops have a nutty flavor and are served with asparagus, edamame, oysters mushrooms, togarashi and soy-sake sauce. Schwartz unself-consciously meshes Asian ingredients and flavors.
Pastry chef Stephanie G. Wong finishes meals at Zemi with a kind of nostalgic elegance. Consider Zemi baked Alaska ($8), flourless chocolate cake, mocha chip ice cream and toasted meringue. Her Tahitian vanilla bean creme brulee ($8) is perfect on its own, but she adds sake-marinated berries and the sweet treat of sesame tuile. Apple shortbread crumble ($8) gets cardamom ice cream and rum caramel sauce. Her chocolate desserts are less awe-inspiring but solid just the same. If you order just one dessert, make it one of Wong's homemade ice creams ($6). We had black forest.
Schwartz's menu changes every day, and he seems to still be doing some editing. He took over a kitchen whose opening chef had left quite a mark on the Boca dining scene. Schwartz is headed in a new direction, and so far, almost all of it is good.
Please phone in advance to confirm information on hours, prices, menu items and facilities. For review consideration, please fax a current menu that includes name and address of restaurant to 954-356-4386 or send to Sun-Sentinel, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301-2293. John Tanasychuk can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4632 or by writing to him at the Sun-Sentinel.