Updated 21 May 2010: this restaurant has reopened on No. 1 Road and Moncton.
Today, I am blogging about the “Best Chinese Food Outside of China” … well, that was according to Jennifer 8 Lee. Jennifer is a reporter for New York Times who had just published a booked called “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food”.
In writing the book, she visited restaurants in 42 states in the US and other 23 countries in search for Chinese food. When she landed in Vancouver, she went to three restaurants … Kirin, Sun Sui Wah and Zen. Out of the many restaurants, she chose to describe Zen as the greatest.
From the outside Zen does not really look like much of a restaurant. The location too is left too much to be desired as it is on the second floor of a smallish strip mall at the end of Alexandra Rd in Richmond.
According to the news, Zen had been struggling to bring in customers for a few years and is in the verge of closing down. When the news broke of the great review from Jennifer 8, all hell broke lose, so to speak.
From the days where there are only a few customers a week, the table seating were fully booked the week after the news broke. The only time available for us that week was 5:30 PM on a Friday.
Unlike other Chinese restaurants, Zen only have fixed tasting menus. You do not go there and pick your food from a menu. Instead, when you book a table, you will be given a menu of four choices to pick from. They even insist that the entire table have the same items (i.e. you do not order Menu A for some and Menu B for the others). It looks like Zen only takes reservation only and does not entertain walkins. All this is because Zen takes hours to prepare most of the food.
Suanne and I picked the cheapest tasting menu which costs about $36 per person.
Zen is just that … a restaurant at the verge of closing down and is now struggling to keep up. Decor wise, it is quite spartan and simple. If I may even describe it, the cutlery were mismatched. We did not mind at all but it does jump at us when we got seated. After all we were there for the food and understand the circumstances that Zen went through.
I would describe the service as “eager”. The waitresses were quite overwhelmed by the crowd and at times had difficulty communicating in English. A number of them were quite raw and inconfident, even to the extend of not really knowing what the food is called … but they made up for it by having two great person who were coming to each table to speak with the customers. We enjoyed that personal attention — this is certainly not like any Chinese restaurant, formal or informal, that we had ever been to before.
The gentleman (I did not get his name) who came by our table told us that Sam (da man behind Zen) had been working in an overdrive mode the past few days. So, their number one priority was to keep Sam healthy so much so that they do not bother to fill on empty tables when there are cancellations.
I ordered a beer, a simple Corona which is $5.50 per glass. The drinks menu really needed a fresher print. It was really old, worn and torn. I am sure that by now it would have already been replaced.
Suanne ordered their Aloe Vera with Honey. This costs $3.50. She ordered this simply because she had never heard of such a drink before. It came served boiling hot and tastes a bit sourish. It was quite good and unique for sure.
Before we got settled down with the meal, they gave us an appetizer, complimentary from Sam. They came in two saucers containing Jelly Fish and Sharks Fin. It was a good mix of texture (crunchy) and taste (sour and mildly spicy). LOL … I wish they gave us more.
Suanne insisted that I finish off the entire saucer — especially the three strands of sharks fin I had left on the saucer. According to her, the most expensive part of this is the sharks fin. Anyone know how expensive sharks fin are?
Next came the Apple Cider. It was served in small chilled glass, about 2-3 inches tall only. There are froth on it but otherwise tastes absolutely like any other apple cider to me. He he he … they told us that it is specially prepared for us being the first customer of the day.
This is simply called “Seafood Curry” according to the Chinese name. We can’t really make out what exactly the seafood is because they are all finely chopped and stuffed into a mollusk shell. It was interesting and quite tasty with a nice touch of spiciness.
Next came the Double Boiled Soup. It really looked like any double boiled soup to me except that it is much more “cheng” (clear). It contained pork, dried vegetables, pig stomach and dry scallop. It was served scalding hot.
Double boiling allows heat sensitive ingredients to heat slowly and evenly. It also eliminates the possibility of scorching or overcooking in direct heat cooking.
The star dish of the evening had got to be the Garlic Crab. Like all other other dishes,it is served really hot. The crab was meaty but what we love was the finely minced garlic. I can’t quite make out what it is but that garlic is not garlicky but quite mild and bland.
Next came the simple “Mustard Green Hearts”. It was tender, crisp and lightly salted. Such simplicity. I think Sam, just dunked in the selected part of the mustard green into hot water and then served.
BTW, Sam came out and visited the table next to us. That table looked like they are some rich hot shots from Hongkong. I like Sam and his mannerism. He is polite and humble. I can see how hard he must have been working the past few days.
I created a new dish … I put the minced garlic on the mustard green hearts. Tastes a lot better that way. What do you think … I do make a good chef, no?
The next one is what is called the Roasted Pork Cheek. It is like a Rolls Royce of Char Siew … more tender, much smoother and less fibrousy. It looked like lean meat but the texture is like pork fat. Absolutely marvelous.
Now, the next one I could not quite understand. It’s a simple fried rice with dried scallop. OK, blame me for not having such fine taste buds (in Chinese, it’s saying that my mouth is not “chim” enough!). I can’t taste any dried scalloped at all … not that I really can recognize dried scallops. The fried rice was great but it’s … well … just fried rice to me.
OK, the last dish was what they call the “Special Salty Chicken”. It’s cold … it’s like Hainanese Chicken … and we can’t see what is special about this. We have simple taste buds, I guess.
To close, we were served the Green Tea Pudding. It was such a small serving but were absolutely smooth with the right touch of sweetness.
All in all, it was a good quality meal. As to whether this is the best outside of China, I am not that sure. To me it sure was one of the better Chinese meals I had. I am rooting for Sam and really wishes that he carefully capitalize on his new found fame. I recommend that you check out Sam’s creation yourself … I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.