The name Chimera is a nod to Zoe's roots: "The chimera is a mythical beast composed of several animals," Zoe explains. "It's a creature I really relate to. I'm an immigrant from Asia who grew up here," absorbing many different food cultures in addition to the Chinese cooking of his homeland. In this new space, Zoe will honor the diversity of that upbringing, focusing on the food and flavors of the Pacific Rim without adhering to the confines of any one country's culinary tradition.
"People ask, why not Chinese or Japanese?" he says. "The reason is, I really wanted to pick a palette to work in. This is about context. I try to stay away from the idea of authenticity. My idea of authenticity is from when I was a child in Asia — but that was over forty years ago. What was authentic forty years ago may not be the same today, but we can talk about the roots."
Don't expect fusion, however. Zoe plans to create a tight menu that explores the origins of some of his favorite dishes while updating presentation for modern diners. "I'm focused on items that I feel like I can really drill down to the essence of that dish in ways that people will say, wow, that was one of the best creations of that dish." He cites examples like ramen, for which he plans to make alkaline noodles by hand, capitalizing on his passion for fresh noodles over factory-made versions. He loves Korean barbecue, he says, so he'll create a version that foregoes Coca-Cola — which many Korean restaurants use to tenderize meat — and relies instead on deepening traditional flavors. And he'll present a Chinese steamed fish in sizzling Sichuan oil, but he'll update the plating, eschewing the traditional presentation of a whole fish in favor of a more diner-friendly serving style.
Zoe says he's particularly interested in the northern Pacific Rim, so many dishes will come from China, Japan, Korea and the Pacific Northwest. "I'm driven by my belly," he says. "I want to make food that I really want to eat, that I feel like we can execute really well."
The lounge, says Zoe, will account for 50 percent of the space. "This is not just a tiny little bar as an afterthought," he notes. The drinks menu takes inspiration from the same region, offering tropical cocktails and a carefully chosen list of sake and wine.
And as for the leap into full-service dining from fast-casual, it's not Zoe's first (he had a previous foray into fine dining with Ella, a European comfort-food spot that closed in 2015), but he says it's a natural progression from Zoe Ma Ma. "I grew up in a restaurant family, so I’ve always been passionate about food, the front of house and back of house, and dining as a guest," he says. "I was away from it until I got started doing Zoe Ma Ma with my mom, and that reignited my passion. My left brain told me fast-casual was an easier model to execute than full service. But there's just something about giving customers a great dining experience."
Construction is already beginning on the Sushi Tora space, which will be fully gutted and remodeled; if all goes to plan, Chimera should open in October.