The press release from Zen Asian Contemporary failed to entice or even intrigue me, mostly because it neglected to mention one sort of important thing: the food. Sure, I can deduce that it's Asian, and the release mentioned price points. But it also devoted far too many paragraphs to the Lyn-Lake area's "taste for exciting and exotic cuisine, " as well as some random background information on the owner, namely that he most recently owned a billiards cafe in Burnsville. Plus, no word on who's running the kitchen. The website is uh, well, suffice to say it should be a little better for an Uptown restaurant that's been open three weeks now.
Do you see why I wasn't enticed?
Lucky for Zen, my friend Inari talked me into checking it out for lunch last week and it was so good I went back with more friends today.
Kudos to the Chef, whoever you are. I'm wholly impressed with everything I've tried so far. In fact, my only disappointment is that Zen serves such an abbreviated version of its dinner menu during the lunch hours. Some of us stroll into restaurants looking for supper at 9:00pm, the same time Zen closes its doors on the weeknights (10:00pm on weekends). Hopefully I'll get there in time for dinner soon, because nearly everything on the evening menu can be made vegetarian, down to the tom yum soup and the pho. (Zen's entire menu is very recognizable, from lettuce wraps and lo mein to pad thai and red curry.)
Mock duck is treated with the respect it deserves -- and it's completely void of the mass-produced, chemical taste that can sometimes accompany this Asian protein staple -- and I tried it two ways. First, battered, lightly fried and served sweet and sour-style; then fried in tempura batter with asparagus and yams, drizzled with a sweet sesame sauce. Everything was expertly fried to a light, crunchy texture with no greasiness to be found. Sauce to chunky thing ratios were flawless (not too soggy, not too dry). Nothing required even a drop of soy sauce, nor was anything over-seasoned.
I tried tofu flawlessly tossed in a hot wok until it reached that coveted crispness on the outside (a texture many Asian-fusion restaurants fail so miserably in achieving), then it was nestled into a medley of delicately stir-fried vegetables (fat pea pods and plump Japanese eggplant stand out) in a savory sauce that I was expecting to be too garlicky (like a lot of stir-fries are) but instead had a pleasantly light, almost teriyaki flavor.
Lunch combination plates are served with a delicate mixed greens salad, impeccably dressed with a simple sesame vinaigrette, as well as a fried, Vietnamese-style spring roll stuffed with thin rice noodles, your choice of pork or mock duck, veggies, shredded ear mushrooms and a surprise dash of Chinese five-spice.
Perfection is clearly the M.O. of the kitchen, so again, big ups to the Chef. Christ, even the jewel fried rice was so good I tried to finish it, despite being stuffed.
Order your food spicy and Zen will not disappoint; one of my lunch companions today requested a little kick in his beef cubes and broccoli and, between gulps of water, compared it to a level 4 at Sawatdee. Five spice scallops was the other dish at the table I didn't try, but reports coming in said that they were seared just right and set atop a white wine cream sauce that was not so Asian-fusion, but quite good nonetheless. The only puzzling thing that showed up on both visits was a condiment server full of some sort of apricot or peach puree sauce. Each of us dipped everything on the table in it and couldn't determine what it was for, nor did anyone care for it.
Lunch portions are sizable, enough for me to take home for a snack later, which is what makes the prices great. So great in fact, I'm stumped trying to think of another Asian restaurant in the Uptown area offering this caliber of food at such low price points. Appetizers start at $5.95, most entrees are in the $8.95 to $12.95 range, and nothing on the menu tops $19.95 (the price you'd pay for Zen's New York Strip, should you be the unadventurous type). Even the plating shines, like the work of a recent culinary graduate eager to show off his newly-learned art.
Decor is... purple. But comfortable. Music could stand to be turned down a couple of clicks; the blaring Elvis Costello was, at one point, seriously interfering with my zen. Desserts weren't offered nor did I see them on the menu, but perhaps they're coming along as slowly as the future beer and wine license. Zen has no bar, nor do I expect to see one in a restaurant that keeps short hours to cater to the neighborhood lunch and dinner crowds. One blessing in disguise about shorter hours: they usually mean only one kitchen shift per day, which translates to continuity in the excellent quality of what's coming out of the Zen kitchen.