Andy Kor had obvious business reasons for naming his new restaurant Zen Asian Contemporary—it evokes a mood, while providing customers with a set of expectations. However, the name is fitting beyond a marketing strategy. As a not-really-fusion, not-really-traditional restaurant, it functions outside the boundaries of culinary mores. The food is just…Zen’s. Unexpected ingredients pop up at every turn, yet each dish gives one the sensation of pleasant familiarity, while managing to be fantastically unique. If this description is as cryptic as my attempt at “Zen,” I shall adopt a more tangible approach: the menu.
The Scallops in Potato Nest appetizer ($9.95) presents several tender sautéed scallops charmingly nestled in a fried matchstick potato “bird’s nest,” with sweet and spicy miso sauce, along with chopped scallions. Each dainty little scallop presents a culinary reinvention of an egg with a tender center and well-rounded bite, finished with a lovely flutter of miso. It’s the perfect introduction to Zen, and pairs well with citrus Misiones de Renga Sauvignon Blanc ($7/22).
Fried Calamari ($8.95) also presents a bit of the expected with a decidedly uncharacteristic twist. Yes, they are battered and fried to a guilty crisp, and served on a bed of tomato coulis. However, the tomatoes are smoked in-house, which gives the entire plate a resonance often lacking in calamari dishes. My favorite addition was a douse of chili oil in the middle, giving the dish an inherent range of spiciness. Fire-breathers freely can wield chopsticks toward the center, while others can skirt the edges. It’s wonderful to see a favorite dish reinvented, without losing what made it a classic in the first place.
Kor says, “Nowadays, there are so many Chinese restaurants. They’re just competing with the same dishes. And it’s a satisfying thing to see the dishes come out in a different way.”
Since the restaurant’s debut on February 28, the concept has caught on with the open-minded Uptown clientele. Kor appeals to vegetarians, pescatarians, and the rest of us by keeping his menu wonderfully diverse. Soups, salads, noodles, fried rice dishes, and entrées are priced affordably, while offering a more appealing presentation than the Asian restaurant norm.
Head Chef Chien Nguyen and Kor developed the menu together, with many of the dishes getting the nod from Nguyen’s own culinary school graduation presentation.
Kor remarks lightheartedly, “You know, we just kind of get into it. He says something, and I say something, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t!”
It’s that same spirit of optimistic risk-taking that led to the Tom Yum Soup with Shrimp ($8.95), a sizable pineapple/shrimp/mushroom/galanga delight in a tangy lemongrass broth, topped with shredded eggs—a decided success.
Our server arrived with glasses of velvety Piattelli Malbec ($8/28) that paved the way for our first entrée, Orange Glazed Duck ($19.95). If you are in a sharing mood, be sure to pass your partner a bit of both duck pieces, so they can experience the light and dark meat. It shares a plate with bok choy, carrots, pea pods, and fresh cilantro, resting in a fragrant jus.
The Grilled Ahi Tuna ($16.95) is a departure from much of what I sampled, and would suit diners who prefer a milder flavor. When you try your first bite, take advantage of the shiitake-soy-ginger-garlic sauce that has soaked into the stir-fried vermicelli noodles. To call it Asian comfort food is taking an enormous liberty—I mean no disrespect—it simply leaves one feeling pleasantly sated and relaxed.
Nonetheless, I was pleased when Kor arrived with a pretty little dessert plate. I selected lemon cheesecake garnished with ripe blackberries ($5.95), and sipped sweet Maiden Wines’ Blackberry Wine ($8/25) to finish. The cheesecake is creamy, thick, and altogether unexpected at an Asian restaurant.
Though Zen is fairly new, reservations are recommended. As more diners embrace the small space, it likely will become more difficult to get a quick table. While the wait very well could encourage meditation and introspection, for the full Zen experience…eat.
Zen Asian Contemporary
3016 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.