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Zoe's by the Lake
Restaurant Now Closed
112 Tomahawk Trail
Sparta, Sussex County, New Jersey
(973) 726-7226

By The Artful Diner

As of this writing, Zoe's by the Lake might more aptly be dubbed Zoe's by the "Meadow." This sad state of affairs is the result of the dam that burst during a flood and emptied Seneca Lake. The surrounding communities are still reeling from this catastrophe, and it is estimated that it will cost approximately $10 million dollars to restore Glen Lake Road, the thoroughfare most affected by the inundation.

Marla Saben and her husband, Jean-Charles, a native of Paris, were well aware of what had transpired when they purchased the former Tomasso's with a dream of transforming it into a country French restaurant by a quiet lake. Fortunately for this charming, hardworking couple, their dream will soon be realized, as the refilling of Seneca Lake is to commence during the month of August.

By even if Zoe's, which is named after the couple's three-year-old daughter, were to overlook nothing more scenic than asphalt, it would still be worth a journey. The interior of the building, originally rather dark and brooding, has been metamorphosed into a refreshingly airy space replete with lively yellow walls, balcony, and diminutive bar. There is also a patio where diners may savor the beauty and serenity of the soon to be restored body of water.

As delightful as the restaurant is and the view may eventually be, it is executive chef Scott Jacobson's incomparable French cooking that is destined to place Zoe's ever-so-prominently in the little black books of New Jersey's knowledgeable and enthusiastic foodies. "Countrified" the cuisine may be, but Mr. Jacobson, an alumnus of the CIA, delivers it up with style and grace. His culinary combos strike all the right chords: ingredients are pristine of countenance and superbly prepared; and presentations are attractive amalgams of colors, tastes, and textures without being self-indulgently artsy-fartsy.

The moment the amuse-bouche puts in an appearance, you realize that your gastronomic journey has surely not been in vain. On one particular evening, you may be treated to a superlative tuna niçoise that peregrinates to your palate on the wings of a celestial sliver of cucumber; on another occasion, peppered sirloin performs the same magic via a leaf of baby arugula.

While savoring these gratifying gifts, you might also take a few moments to peruse the compact wine list, which, not surprisingly, majors in French with a minor in selections from California. If you favor wines by the glass, a 2001 white Bordeaux from Chateau Haut Maginent ($5.50) is quite excellent... ditto a 2000 California Cabernet Sauvignon from Bacchus ($7.50). When it comes to bottles, I am particularly partial to the first-rate Oregonian Pinot Gris from Ponzi ($30.00), 2002 Les Grand Groux Sancerre ($26.00), and Gondran's 1999 Vacqueyras ($33.00).

Now sipping contentedly, you're ready to give serious consideration to the menu, a comprehensive, well-configured document (eight appetizers and seven entrées) buttressed by a select number of daily specials. The key here, of course, is that the chef doesn't try to impress his diners on paper. "The proof of the pudding," as Cervantes so astutely noted, "is in the eating." Mr. Jacobson knows precisely what he is about -- and what the traffic will bear -- and he patently refuses to succumb to the temptation of indulging in pointless literary (and/or culinary) hyperbole.

So you begin... perhaps with an incomparable sautéed crab cake ($12.00). The crabmeat is delicately shredded with not an ounce of filler to detract from its succulent sweetness. A fresh roast corn salad provides a delicious counterpoint, a pungent red pepper coulis a delightful splash of color. The dish is utterly profound in its simplicity. And the same may be said for the beautifully textured homemade fettuccini embellished with morels & porcini mushrooms and bathed in an intensely flavorful mushroom jus ($12.00).

Cold starters are just as edifying... The baby beet and goat cheese salad ($9.00) is classic in its presentation. Tender morsels of baby beets, walnuts, and crumbled goat cheese form a foundational epicenter crowned with a verdant tiara of peppery baby arugula. The consummating touch is a lovely sherry-herb vinaigrette drizzled artistically about the periphery. The house-cured salmon ($9.00) is yet another of Chef Jacobson's culinary gems. The salmon, endowed with a heady hint of the sea, is pounded wafer thin and garnished at its centrum with salads of the season: on one occasion, crisp white and green asparagus; on another, cucumber and tomato.

As you move on to the entrées, you quickly discover that the kitchen doesn't miss a beat; the main courses are every bit as scintillatingly soul satisfying as their predecessors. If you entertain any doubts on this score, just have a go at the grilled breast of free-range chicken ($22.00). The ingredients may be maddeningly mundane... but together they fashion a vivid gastronomic portrait of the extraordinary beauty to be discovered in preparatory and presentational simplicity. The chicken breast itself -- carved into thick, luscious slices -- is incredibly tender and well able to stand on its own flavorful merits. A savory tarragon sauce, however, is truly transporting, and a corn & potato cake and rustic array of grilled vegetables (zucchini, yellow tomatoes, asparagus, and yellow squash) prove to be most suitable companions.

The glazed pork tenderloin ($24.00) is another superlative effort. Partnered with a hedonistic bacon, apple, and potato gratin, succulent slices luxuriate in a port wine cherry sauce that walks a tumultuous tightrope between sweetness and acidity and never loses its delicate sense of balance. If you would prefer red meat, Zoe's grilled filet mignon ($29.00) is one of the best representatives of the genre that I've come across in a good long time. It is ordered up medium-rare, and the chef is right on the money; it arrives at table neither too well done nor bleeding on the server's socks. A lusty wild mushroom sauce adds a good deal of panache to the velvety textured filet... ditto an incredible tower of truffle mashed potatoes. Confirmed carnivores will surely not be disappointed.

... Neither will lovers of the sea. Three piscatorial presentations always grace the printed menu, occasionally augmented by a daily special. Grilled salmon ($20.00) is usually present and accounted for, and Chilean sea bass ($26.00) and potato-crusted flounder ($23.00) have also put in timely guest appearances. Recently enjoyed was a lovely grilled swordfish ($26.00) swimming in a roast garlic lemon broth awash with fennel & tomato and dotted with atolls of littleneck clams.

There are a number of dessert possibilities, including crème brûlée ($7.00) and a comforting homespun seasonal fruit cobbler ($7.00), both of which are excellent. In my opinion, however, there are really only two viable options... When I'm feeling chipper and chocoholic, I cannot help but be seduced by the "Chocolate Sampler" ($9.00), an extravagant, cast-your-caloric-fate-to-the-wind, outlandish array of decadent chocolate confections (chocolate truffles, brownies, white chocolate mousse, chocolate cheesecake, flourless chocolate tart, just to name a few). On the other hand, when my mood is more classical and contemplative, I opt for the "Cheese Tasting" ($9.00) -- which might include such delicacies as truffle Gouda, Brie, Roquefort, and any one of a number of soft goat cheeses -- served up with segments of green apple, fresh berries, and sumptuous slices of date-almond bread.

Although open a scant seven months, Zoe's by the Lake has already captured the hearts of its ever-growing clientele -- this reviewer included... And you, too, are surely destined to fall under its spell. Kudos to proprietors Marla & Jean-Charles Saben and executive chef Scott Jacobson. An incomparable evening at table awaits!

Cuisine: Country French
Hours: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant proper; on the terrace only.
Reservations: Recommended, especially on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web site: www.zoesbythelake.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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