Zoë's Kitchen: Fast Casual with Mediterranean flair

Family business kept me away from the big Whole Foods extravaganza during opening week, so I didn't notice that there were two new Fast Casual restaurants in the lot next to the new market on Victory Drive.

I grabbed my hubby for our usual Friday night dinner date and we rode on over to see if Zoë's Kitchen was as good as I hoped. 

Don't go picturing bouzoukis playing and mustachioed waiters shouting "Opa!" while hefting plates of flaming cheese — this is a modern, sleek,  Americanized version of Greek-inspired food. If you don't let the bland and distinctly non-ethnic décor put you off, you'll find something special at Zoë's.

"Fast Casual" may be a new designation to most folks, but it's a style of restaurant that is making big inroads in American dining, especially with a proven growth rate that tops out even those megaliths of fast food McDonald's and Burger King. If you've been to Chipotle's next door to Zoë's, Uncle Maddio's Pizza or Moe's Southwestern Grill, you'll have an idea of what the style is like: Clean lines, modern appliances, color-block designs, often supplemented with calligraphy that spells out cheerful food facts and upbeat slogans.

Step up to the counter to order fresh made menu items in personal combinations, with grilled meats, lots of locally grown produce, healthy options like gluten-free and low-fat and plenty of vegetarian/vegan choices (always specially marked on the menu board).

You can usually see well into the kitchen/prep area to watch smiling young people create your meal — not much hidden in these places.

Zoë's Kitchen has all this and more. As the manager stated, the food is more Mediterranean with a touch of Greek and is based on the founder Zoë Cassimus' family recipes: a Southern, fresh-from-the-garden feel combined with a devotion to healthy eating.

Lean proteins, olive oil, baked-fresh-daily pita bread, homemade Greek dressing and hummus, simple seasonings, orzo and quinoa salads — these are fixtures in this new and already popular place.

 I liked the selection of grilled kabobs, the neat plate of hummus with the swirl of olive oil and triangles of fresh pita and the Greek salad loaded with crisp bell pepper and cucumber slices, black olives, pepperoncini and just the right amount of crumbled feta. My husband's grilled Steak Stack with portabellas and mozzarella  was a little less inspired. It tasted fine but seemed a little sparse and was served on thin sourdough slices.

The sides of rice pilaf and orzo pasta were OK; a sprinkle of their Greek seasoning improved the flavor. His Chicken Salad Sampler was much better: Big scoops of pasta salad, red potato salad, coleslaw mixed with feta and a decent chicken salad over romaine lettuce. It was filling and delicious (though we both thought the chicken salad a little bland).

My chicken kabobs made the grade though, and I am looking forward to trying their beef and shrimp versions. I noted that there was no mayo drenching the salads, and that's nice for those of us keeping an eye on our calories.

Zoë's Kitchen does serve wine and beer, which is part of the Fast Casual design. It has quick service, low-to-mid-range prices and a pleasant outdoor café. I found the servers to be helpful and eager to answer questions, willing to make the effort to listen to the customer.

Zoë's also specializes in catering and there are several ready-made options for families or business folks who need a quick, healthy meal. Desserts include Zoë's grandma Ya-Ya's chocolate cake and oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies.

Last word: It's a clean, modern place to have a quick, casual meal. What it lacks in personality and authenticity, it makes up with fresh ingredients and cheerful service. Give it a try and you may find it becoming a reliable family favorite.


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