I had put this post on the back burner for a long time already. I still remember the very day that we went to Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine. It was the day of the Mens Hockey semifinals. We were half expecting that this restaurant will be empty but it was not quite.
Zen had a storied past. Headed by Sam Lau today, Zen was the one restaurant which introduced the Chinese fine dining / tasting menu concept to Vancouver. This concept is a departure from the mainstream large-plate format of traditional Chinese restaurant. I had an insight of Sam’s culinary career from someone close to him and was quite impressed with his resume. I will not say who he/she was at this time because I want to write another separate post on this branch of Chinese cuisine.
Zen started in 2003. From the early years, Zen was struggling to introduce the new concept to a largely traditional customer base. Things changed dramatically overnight in 2005 when Jennifer 8 Lee of the NYT went to Zen to conduct research for her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. In her acclaimed book, Jennifer 8 Lee included these powerful words that made Zen an overnight sensation worldwide. She said that Zen is:
… the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world outside of China.
It was just a few words within a book in Jennifer 8 Lee reviewed of Chinese restaurants around the world. Those words gave Sam and Zen a second wind. Phones were ringing off the hook. We know because we were one of those who were trying to get a reservation when the news broke (here is our review of the old Zen in March 2008).
Unfortunately that did not last. Zen did close a few months later in September 2008. The official word has it that Zen closed then because Sam did not want to renew the lease of that location on Alexandra Road.
I think Vancouver was just not ready to accept this concept of small plate tasting menu.
Sam is back.
Still carrying the same name, Zen.
And still carrying the very words that Jennifer 8 Lee said “the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world outside China”. Except that the words “outside China” was dropped off.
Zen is now located on the southern most reaches of No 1 Road on Richmond. I like that location. This is just perfect for a walk along the Steveston waterfront boardwalk before or after a dinner there.
The decor is minimalistic and simple with clean lines. It is uncluttered as if to draw the focus of the customer to the food and nothing else. This is the type of ambiance that sort of make you slow down, even talk softer. You know how exuberant Chinese restaurants could get oft times.
The restaurant is spacious and seats about 35 people or maybe slightly more.
Someone commented on chowtimes that she saw cheap plastic chairs in Zen just prior to the opening. Well, it was not cheap the way I imagined it to be. It was still plastic but really, I would not count them as cheap. At least it is cushioned.
Service was excellent. That is understandable since we were there at 5PM and there were no one else in the restaurant at that hour. From the outset we can see that our server is very experienced. This is certainly more better than when we last dined in Zen.
The server came across as very confident. So instead of choosing drinks from the menu, we asked for his recommendation and that it is non-alcoholic. With just two questions, he said he will make something special for us. One of the questions was strange. He asked if we were hungry. We also told him we wanted something “light and refreshing”.
I was impressed with what Floyd came up with. On the left is a mix of crushed grapes, mint with white cranberry juice and soda. It tasted very minty and reminds me of Mojitos. What I like a lot is the load of shredded mint in it and also the grapes.
On the right is what Floyd called the strawberry belini. It is a mix of peach, passion fruit, mango, soda and syrup. This is fruity and another excellent drink that Suanne and I both enjoyed a lot.
The above is the menu. Click on them to see them in full size.
The first four menus are simply called Menu A through Menu D. Their prices ranges from $33 to $160 per person. There is also a Special Tasting Menu (not shown above) which is the cheapest at $25. Floyd said that this menu is created for the budget minded customer.
Although Zen stated in the tasting menu that the participation of everyone on the table is mandatory (i.e. you cannot mix and match Menu A and Menu B for instance), they allowed us to do that simply because we were the only one there so early. This is a common practice in tasting menus because of timing issues.
The last two menu above is their a la carte selection which has 13 items. Some of the items require advance notice.
We decided to ordered the Special Tasting Menu ($25) and Menu C ($75). I’ll go through the courses for the Special Tasting Menu first and then loop back to describe the courses for Menu C.
The Special Tasting Menu ($25)
The appetizer is Jelly fish and Baby Greens with Foam Kumquat and Lychee. The jelly is crunchy with a distinct sesame seed flavour and is fresh and refreshing. It was a small bowl.
That is the trouble, right? When you go to a Chinese restaurant, you wanted something more substantial. When you go to, say, a Tapas restaurant, you readily accept that this is an appetizer.
Taste-wise, it is really a good starter to the meal. Makes you want for more.
The appetizer is followed by “soup”. This is a deceptively simple bowl called Foamy Seafood Cappucino.
It was excellent … savoury. We can’t really pinpoint what exactly it is. When we asked Floyd, he mentioned that it is made with jelly fish, lobstser, crab meat.
In the soup is some jello-like green stuff. That is the lobster tomalley. Tomalley is the liver and pancreas of the lobster. It looks like a green paste inside the abdominal cavity of a cooked lobster. It is considered a delicacy and many people consider it the best part of a lobster. It can be eaten scooped from the cooked lobster or can be used to flavor sauces.
Nice … but again we wished that it is a bigger bowl.
First appetizer, then the soup. Next is called the Tofu & Fish.
It looked interesting but when we bite into this, it suddenly appeared to us that this is a very interesting take on the common fish paste in tofu puff … very much like the Malaysian Yong Tow Foo.
The tofu puff is deep fried to a crisp making its texture like cookies. Instead of having the fish paste enveloped by the tofu puff, on it is fish paste, chili and garlic. And topping this is garnishing of frisee (a bitter green) and thinly sliced chili.
I love the execution here. It is based on a very simple dish but made into an exquisite package. I was particularly impressed how the chili is so thinly sliced (picture right) with only the skin — really tiny but packs a punch.
The final item in this $25 Tasting Menu is the Steamed Spareribs with Black Bean on Rice.
Zen uses the best of ingredients. So for this, Zen uses Sloping Hill pork spareribs and served this in a wooden container. The wooden container was something else … it gives the rice a woody scent to the steamy rice.
I love this … a lot. I like the subtleness of the flavour in the rice particularly the scent. However, Suanne thinks the rice is bland and need more of the black bean sauce.
That’s it for the $25 Tasting Menu — four courses. Personally, I think this is a great value. The food appears simple for the most part but if you take the time to savour each bite, I think you will find the subtle difference in them and the close attention to detail to each ingredient.
Menu C ($75)
Menu C is the 2nd most expensive tasting menu at $75. Menu D is way too expensive for us ($160).
We started off with Pan Seared Fresh Foie Gras with Berry Compote, Himalayan Salt, Salad, Lychee, Kumquat and Orange with Citrus Foam. What a package … a busy package with a good balance of flavour and texture.
The hero of this starter (foie gras) however is very … More on following page. Click here to continue reading
In December last year, we came across a shop lot in Steveston that with sign saying that Zen will be re-opening. Well, Sam Lau’s Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine restaurant had re-opened last week.
Suanne and I had just booked for dinner on Friday, February 26th. We were wondering if an chowtimes readers would like to join us in checking out Sam Lau’s re-incarnation of his famed “Greatest Chinese Restaurant in the World”.
Zen became famous overnight in 2008 when Jennifer8 Lee of the New York Times wrote a book called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles in which she traveled around the world checking out Chinese restaurants. In her book, she heralded Sam Lau’s Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine as “the world’s greatest Chinese restaurant outside China”.
Whether Zen is really the world’s greatest Chinese restaurant outside of China is open to debate, I know. There is a question too as to why Sam had to close Zen even after getting a second wind from Jennifer 8′s review in her book.
Anyway, we wrote about the publicity Zen had from Jennifer8 Lee’s review and our tasting at Zen shortly after. Recently, we wrote to Hakkasan about Zen and we had a very in-depth response from Hakkasan which we will share on a later blog post.
Suanne and I was thinking that perhaps if we could get like 2 to 4 couples to join us, it would be great. We have a reservation for 5:30PM. For hockey fan, please note that the 2nd Semi-final of the Men’s Hockey game is on at 6:30PM.
Please send me an email at email@example.com if you are interested in joining Suanne and I.
The menu are as follows … we are looking at trying the Menu B.
Menu A – $33
Salad ~ Micro Mix, Mango Ravioli, Salted Plum Oil Crumble, Seasonal Fruit, Rice Vinegar Foam
Baked Whelk ~ Stuff Diced Seafood, Chicken, Vegetables With Coconut Curry
Double Boiled Soup
Tofu Duo ~ Crispy Egg Tofu, Steamed Silky Tofu with Mushroom
Pork Belly ~ Braised In Chinese Spice, Serve With Glutinous Risotto
Dessert Of The Day
Menu B – $55
Terrine ~ House Smoked Salmon Wrapped With Souffle
Baked Whelk ~ Stuff Diced Seafood, Chicken, Vegetables With Coconut Curry
Foamy Seafood Cappuccino ~ Layered With Egg Tofu
Lobster ~ Stir Fried With Black Bean Sauce/Steamed Garlic Sauce
Deep Fried Crispy Chicken ~ Serve With Five Spice Infused Salt
Lotus Leaf Rice ~ Stuff with Dried Scallop, Mushroom, bbq Duck,Diced Chicken, Crab Meat, Bamboo
Dessert Of The Day
Menu C – $120
Seafood Duo ~ Curry Stuffed Whelk, Sliced Geoduck Fondue
Chinese Seafood Soup ~ With Fresh Crab Meat and Fish Maw
Braised Abalone ~ Slow Braised In Oyster Sauce (3 Heads)
Steamed Lobster ~ Steamed With Mince Garlic
Rice ~ Lobster Claw Stir Egg White, Fried Rice
Dessert Of The Day
Here are some of the pictures of Sam Lau’s previous creations (credit to Zen’s website … http://zencuisine.ca)
There are more …
After the Belgian Waffle breakfast at Damien’s, Suanne and I decided to take a walk around the Steveston Village. It was a lot warmer this week.
We stumbled upon a soon to be opened restaurant that will definitely be the talk of town in the next few months!
Steveston Village had changed a lot the past few years. There had been quite a bit of development. I like what I see because the Richmond City had managed to plan all the new development really well without altering the charm of the area.
As we walked past this new apartment / retail building I noticed from the distance the familiar words “Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine”. It took me a few seconds to fully realize the words I was reading. I was hoping that it is THE Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine that became an overnight success over a year ago.
So we moved to take a closer look.
And YES, IT IS. Sam Lau and Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine is making a comeback in Richmond.
For those of you who do not know of Zen, we had written two blog posts about Sam and Zen before.
Chef Sam Lau burst into the limelight in March 2008. At that time, he was running a near bankrupt fine dining restaurant and was just mere … More on following page. Click here to continue reading
Suanne and I had dinner over the weekend last week with ET and Christina (of Doesn’t TaZte Like Chicken). This was at their invitation and the day just after our first DOV (Dine Out Vancouver) event in Raincity. We were glad they did not suggest another DOV event as we already have a few planned and really wanted to try something different.
And what a difference it was … and what a choice it was too. This meal in Hakkasan does rank as some of the best meals I ever had.
Hakkasan is really an odd place. It is located in possibly one of the worst location one could probably find in Richmond for a restaurant, let alone a fine dining restaurant. Virtually all the best restaurants in Richmond are clustered around No 3 Road in the city center but Hakkasan for some reason chooses to open itself smack in the middle of commercial and industrial area. It is located on No 5 Road just north of Bridgeport.
We liked the comfortable homely setting of the restaurant. At some parts of the restaurant you might even feel like you’re dining at home.
Hakkasan billed themselves as Contemporary Chinese Cuisine. I understand from ET and Christina that Hakkasan and Zen Chinese Cuisine are related and that they are operated by brother and sister. I am not surprised if this is indeed true because many of the dishes and the style they are served looks very similar. You might have known that Zen Chinese Cuisine had once been declared by the New York Times as the best Chinese restaurant outside of China. Check out our review of Zen here and here.
For us, we were seated at the more contemporary dining area …
… with contemporary Chinese table settings. Perfect, I think all Chinese table setting should be like this … not chopsticks OR fork/knife OR spoon/fork … but, chopsticks AND knife AND spoon AND fork! The complete set of eating utensils, if you ask me. That is five if you include also your fingers which we actually did use during this meal.
They had a $1 coconut water special that night. It was a steal and who could resist any drink at $1 right? It was good, we liked it. But despite the price, we limited ourselves to only a single glass. As innocent as it looked, I think it is very high in saturated fat.
Christina, the more health conscious among us opted instead for the “Popo” tea. Per Christina, this type of tea supposedly has slimming properties. Ahhh … we have a weight watcher in our midst! This one is $3.50. We noticed that they not only top up with water but also with tea because the tea was the same consistency the whole night.
It took us an awfully long time before we actually got down to deciding what to order. They have a bewildering lots of tasting and set menus … almost all of them at 50% off! We were kind of skeptical about the 50% off gimmick really and did not pay serious attention to the “was” price and just considered the “now” price.
We opted to go for the “Abalone Set for 4″ which costs $168. For a moment before we ordered, we thought that it was $168 per person … nope, it was for four. What drew us to this choice are the words “abalone” and “lobster”. More on following page. Click here to continue reading
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.
Hey … did any of you guys see that headline article in The Vancouver Sun on Friday last week? I mean, this one below?
Well, it is a big deal to be called by a New York Times critic as having the best Chinese food outside of China. Suanne and I knew there is this place called Zen but did not give a second glance at this because it is located in upstairs of a very small strip mall at the end of Alexandra Rd.
The article makes very interesting read … see the entire article called “Could a great review save a dining room on the brink?“.
So, Suanne and I are definitely going to check this place out. According to the article, they have a $35 tasting menu. We are planning on going on Friday this week (14-Mar). It would be great if some of you would care to join us. If you are interested, just pop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If that date does not work for you and you are definitely interested, let us know too … we’ll see what we can do.
Suanne and Ben
Here is the full review of our visit to Zen:
I sort of gate crashed into a team dinner when I was in Atlanta. I had no qualms doing that since I had never been to PF Chang before … and more importantly, someone else is picking up the tabs for this dinner.
PF Chang’s China Bistro is another American chain restaurant. The one we went to was just walking distance from our office. It’s in the newly renovated Cumberland Mall. Despite it’s name it’s more aptly described as an American Chinese bistro … i.e. it tried to look Chinese but it’s really catered for the American tastes. He he he … you know what the initials P.F. stands for? It’s named after the founder of the chain … Paul Fleming! Enough said! :-)
Although this PF Chang is called a China Bistro, it’s more like a more upscale restaurant. The service was prompt and pretty good. I actually have a bit of a culture shock here … seeing how pretentious this place is trying to be chinese. Starting the many lanterns on the ceiling and the candles in the table. Why … if I am not mistaken, you never have a candle on the chinese table because you only light candles in a funeral for the dead! :-)
Started with a drink and chose something unique from the drinks menu. It’s called the Asian Persuasion which is basically vodka shaken with fresh brewed organic green tea. Yucks! It was an awful combination — at least to me anyway.
Well, I was seated at the far side of where the ordering action was and did not managed to get a say on what to order. I thought I better keep quiet since I am a gate crasher this time. But … those guys, all southerners (no Asians) were having problems ordering because I think they eat Chinese only perhaps once every decade or so.
They gave up and guess what they ordered … they asked the waitress to bring us $25 worth of Chinese food each person and left the choice to her!! For me, it was very funny and tried my best not to notice and concentrated on my small chatter at the end of the table and sip my vodka … errr … green tea.
What happened next was kind of strange to me. They came by and gave everyone a crash course on mixing sauces. Being a Chinese my whole life, I have never seen this before. They taught every how to mix the chilli oil, soya sauce and vinegar. Basically they said that it you want it hot, you add the chilli oil and if that is too hot, then you add the vinegar to tone it down. You do it to and fro until you get the perfect balance. Well, let just say that I learn something new today … whether if it of use to me is another matter.
Since I had no part in the ordering, I had no idea what was ordered. For that matter, no one ordered actually from our table. So, am gonna guess and you tell me if they are correct, alright?
The one below is Chicken and Brocolli. It was quite nice. The meat is too lean though but I can understand why. The gravy is nice but we did not order steamed rice. What a waste of good gravy.
I believe the dish below is salt and pepper calamari. It came with a dipping sauce and considered as a appetizer in this place — maybe because it looked like a finger food. Normally this is considered as a main Chinese dish.
The most interesting dish is perhaps this one. Not sure now what it is but it came with lettuce which you used to make a wrap.
This should be salt and pepper shrimp. This is really good.
The Mongolian Beef is cooked with scallions and garlic.