Exotic ingredients are in alignment at Zodiac

October 23, 1997|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The stars must have been properly aligned when Zodiac opened in August. But whether it's because of celestial forces or a talented kitchen staff, we predict this restaurant has a glowing future.

The astrological mural hanging on the wall at Zodiac was what gave Joy Martin inspiration for the name of the restaurant she owns with her mother, Esther. They both are also partners in the Club Charles next door.

A former antiques dealer, Joy Martin spent three years renovating the space and decorating it with Art Moderne flair. The bar, the curved aqua banquettes, the crystal chandelier hanging in the second-floor dining room, were all treasures rescued from doomed Baltimore landmarks.

If the decor says 1940s, the menu is very '90s. Among the entrees, culinary influences range from Italian to Indian, Tex-Mex to Thai. There's also lighter fare like burgers, tortillas and buckwheat crepes. The remarkable thing is that the kitchen can execute this eclectic menu so well.

While we were deciding on our orders, we dug into a freshly baked mini-loaf of bread, warm from the oven, with tapenade and herb butter to spread on top.

That held us over until our enchilada appetizer arrived, napped with tomatillo salsa, pico de gallo and vinegar-dressed slaw. Inside were bay scallops, small shrimp, and bits of charred tomatoes and zucchini. It was surprisingly light, with a deliciously smoky edge.

Rosemary and sun-dried tomato gave the polenta appetizer intense flavor. While the herbal punch of fresh rosemary was strong, it didn't overwhelm the two thick cornmeal triangles, served on a tangy paste of roasted red peppers.

The last of our appetizers was a salad of mixed field greens, spiked with grilled tomatoes, cucumbers, macadamia nuts and -- our favorite ingredient -- cinnamon-fried plantains. The flavors married nicely with a light papaya-nectar dressing.

Our waiter, who was upbeat and full of information, suggested the Norwegian salmon as one of our entrees. The thick filets were wonderfully moist, seared inside a crust of black and

golden sesame seeds. We loved the salads that were mounded high on the same plate -- a spicy one with cold buckwheat noodles, and a sweet Asian mix of julienne carrots, red peppers and cucumbers.

Equally impressive was the boneless breast of duck, grilled dark on the edges and rare inside. Sliced into medallions, it was served with Zodiac's barbecue sauce. This orange "voodoo" sauce is so good they should bottle it. Presentation didn't suffer, either, with a tower of black quinoa and capers adding visual punch to the plate.

We liked the look of the buckwheat crepe, too, folded flat like a large square envelope. Drizzled with thin wasabi aioli, it was so pretty it looked like dessert. Inside each dark, crisp-edged bite of crepe were thin layers of smoked salmon, wilted kale and cream cheese.

Desserts, though made in-house, didn't have the same pizazz as the rest of our meal. Mango and blackberry sorbets were too sweet and artificial-tasting. Chocolate mousse was fudgy but unremarkable.

Only a light layer cake, soaked with lime and tequila and layered with kiwis, satisfied us after such a terrific dinner. The combination of ingredients was surprising, the flavors powerful. That pretty much sums up the rest of what we tried here, too.

Zodiac

1726 North Charles St.

410-727-8815

Hours: Open daily for dinner

Credit cards: Discover, MasterCard, Visa.

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$7.50; entrees, $5-$18.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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