Updated 2nd Jan 2015; This restaurant is closed.
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.
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Thanks for posting pictures, prices, and comments on every part of the experience. I’m pretty nervous going to a different restaurant where I don’t find my usual “yeung chow fried rice?
u know what…so sorry i thought u’re a malaysian here for a visit.
Hi Ben and Suanne,
Do you feel the meal was worth the price of admission ? How would you compare it say, with a Dine Out Vancouver meal for $35/person ?
We felt that we get more and better food in Zen compared to the normal $35 DOV dinner. That’s as far as I would say. Ambiance and service-wise is another matter.
No wonder Zen is almost out of business. The owner markets his restaurant as a fine dining restaurant but it’s not that fine about it’s food, location and presentation. There is no wow factor. Just because he serves everything in small sample size doesn’t make it fine dining.
Besides you don’t eat shark fin everyday, other dishes are very common (you can have it everyday and find it everywhere), nothing is unique.
How easy it is for you to find Hainanese Chicken, it’s in every Asian food court. Fried rice is cheap. Can he at least put some visible ingredients in rice? Roast pork? We all have favorite roast pork vendor, you just don’t go to Zen for roast pork. Mustard Green Hearts? Does it even require a good chef to make that? garlic crab? I mean there’s a lot of chinese restaurants serving great crabs, if you really want excellent crabs, would you go to a real Chinese restaurant serving you big dish of crabs or Zen for a few small bites of crabs? He seems to use dry scallops a lot(go for inexpensive ingredients), not fresh ingredients, that’s lame for a fine dining place. Pudding is inexpensive to make, can’t he give customers a bigger pudding for dessert? It will cost him nothing and make customers happy. The chef is too cheap to do so. Apple Cider in chilled cups? Not very exciting. You either give them bigger cups or small cups with some other ingredients (such as fruits) nicely arranged together.
It’s not being impolite or anything, if no one tells the owner honestly what is wrong with his restaurant, he will never see why the restaurant isn’t making it and he won’t be able to improve anything to save his business.
Here in Vancouver, there’s a lot of restaurants trying to make it as fine dining because it’s too much hard work for them to sell honest solid food. They will only go out of business soon. In US, if you want to market your restaurant as a find dining place, the decor has to be really fancy, it should have valet parking and the ingredients have to be not cheap, some signature dishes you can’t find somewhere else.
Thanks for the detailed review. I find your reader’s comment helpful as well.
I think I would tend to agree with Lola. I don’t think I’ll be spending my $36 at Zen.
Lola, if you haven’t already, I recommend the latest issue of Georgia Straight (Golden Plates Award ’08). One of the main feature articles talks about how in Vancouver, the whole concept of fine-dining restaurant presentation and marketing packaging is still lacking, and we are definitely behind other major cities:
Lola, couldn’t agree with you more! To name a place that’s almost going out of business as the Top Chinese Restaurant outside of China is ludicrous! In Vancouver, where there are many great choices to eat Chinese, the people vote with their wallets and patronage. If the Zen people really want to stand out, they should be trying to reconstruct the Chinese basic food like one chap is doing in Hong Kong. I saw him on the Anthony Bourdain’s show, “No Reservations”. This one chef (self-trained) has a take on beef sukiyaki, using rare Kobe beef in small, one-serving sukiyaki dishes and letting the warm sauce cook this meat. He also had an interpretation on the traditional Har Gow, emphasizing more of the shrimp than the wrapper that was nothing short of impressive. That kind of refinement is what separates one from another small plate restaurant.
While I’ll agree that the Vancouver area is the best outside of China/HK for Chinese food, I’m a bit leery of this critic.
Ben>>Thanks for the review with the pictures!
LotusRapper>>LOL, I was reading that during my lunch. Interesting read and a little bit surprised that Bluewater guy won.
Lola>>You are spot on. I’m not impressed. My thought while reading Ben’s review was “gee, it looks like stuff I eat at home, but on a small plate” However, before we bash Zen we do have remember that the “chef” was not classicly trained. He just worked in restaurants before and decided to open a restaurant. It shows in the fod.
I have eaten there before the mad rush. His cooking is very tasty. I agreed with Ben that it is one of the better Chinese meals. Just remember that it is like eating at a French restaurant and not a traditional Chinese restaurant with large portions. If you are going to measure value with the igrediants, you’re not going to get it here or many other places either.
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