Zen: In Need of Enlightenment
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007
It has an attractive name and concept, a wine bar with "Asian tapas," which seems to offer something for both body and soul. But while Zen Bistro & Wine Bar has plenty of spirits, the fare can be seriously off-balance. The kitchen, one might say, has not yet achieved full self-knowledge.
On the other hand, there are larger forces at work. Despite the apparently separate style, Zen is physically and financially connected to Asia Bistro, the sushi bar next door (and next patio) on the Pentagon Row mini-town square in Arlington, as well as Saigon Saigon across the plaza; and if you pick and choose from both the tapas and sushi menus, you can concoct a fairly satisfying repast. At happy hour, when the wines of the day are $3 and the lowering sun reaches gentle fingers through the pergola-style roof, it has a sense of calm that a glass of Viognier enhances. The sweets are elaborately, decadently Euro-rich. And therein, perhaps, lies contentment.
Zen is a nice-looking bar, not so much minimalist as sleek and loungey; its 20-foot bar lifts the sight lines at one side of the room, and a grouping of deep couches lowers them on the other. It's richly painted and coolly lit, not dim but distinctly darker than Asia Bistro, whose glass-fronted sushi bar sometimes glints via a rear pass-through. Zen's wine list is not vast, or rare, but has variety and good value and some dependable and less common labels, and the suggested pairings can be intriguing -- the Menage a Trois from Folie a Deux with the asparagus tempura rolls, for example. Asparagus is notoriously wine-defiant, and many chefs suggest an acidic white or soft red, depending on the treatment; but since these lightly battered spears are smeared with a somewhat pallid cheese sauce, a busty meritage like Menage does help to broaden the flavor.
"Pallid" pretty much sums up Zen's problem: It's cautious to the point of paralysis. The technique can be good -- the tempura batter on the asparagus is airy, like a good Italian misto -- and the textural blend not uninteresting, but the dish is dull. The rice is bland (erratic, really, but fair at best and spongy at worst -- a surprising lapse for the Asia Bistro family, which previously passed the rice test), and whatever tang was intended by the sauce went awry.
Calamari over salad has the same problem -- good frying, but flavor-sapping batter -- and though its dressing was supposed to be a take on Asian dipping sauce, with lemongrass, lime, garlic and mint, it was scarcely noticeable. "Zen rolls," rice-paper-wrapped summer rolls with shrimp and avocado, might have been paper for all the flavor, and the "velvety peanut sauce" that should have provided the punch had only a trace of the chili it required. When it comes to Asian finger foods, the spice and sauce should be integral parts of the recipe, not an option, which is why the rolls may seem so delicate -- no suitable complement, no synthesis.
The crispy salmon roll, which comes with a trio of more assertive sauces -- they're creamy, so perhaps the kitchen is emboldened to action -- and the grilled lamb chops, which are rubbed with lemongrass and topped with a garlicky watercress puree, are among the most successful dishes. (There's a similarly marinated pork chop.) Peking duck roll is an almost-ran; if the duck were slightly less chewy, it would pass muster.
But the steamed shrimp dumplings, with minced pork and scallions allegedly somewhere in the mix, fell into the old error of timidity, and the plain soy sauce was just a coverup; something with vinegar or lime would have been better. Cream cheese obscured any other stuffing element in the crispy crab wontons. The "Zen pyramid," a sort of fried rice with Asian sausage, sun-dried shrimp and veggies, tasted more of oil than anything else, and the hot pot with chicken and shiitakes was no more appealing. For $10, the steamed mussels are a better choice.
Zen is an appealing concept, and with a few adjustments it could be a pleasant summer destination. At the moment, however, the food is more of a distraction; whoever is tasting the wines needs to turn his or her attention to the kitchen.
Asia Bistro, a popular Pan-Asian/sushi restaurant in Pentagon City, has instituted a no-smoking policy at its location alongside an ice rink. But for smokers -- and others looking for lighter fare -- it has opened a new dining spot, Zen Bistro & Wine Bar, next door.
Zen Bistro becomes the third restaurant in the Pentagon Row complex owned by the Tonthat family. The first enterprise, Saigon Saigon, opened just after Sept. 11, 2001. Asia Bistro opened in 2003, and Zen Bistro opened in November.
Zen Bistro's long, narrow space is dominated by a sleek black bar, which takes up almost half the restaurant. A row of booths lines one side of the restaurant, there are a few tables up front and also a couple of comfortable sofas for lounging. Black is the favored color -- for chairs, tables, walls and servers' uniforms -- contrasted by pale earthenware jars with bright red chopsticks on each table.
Zen Bistro has a lengthy, moderately priced and well-chosen wine list, mostly from smaller vineyards in California, Australia and New Zealand. Suggested wine pairings are on the menu with most dishes. Jessica Tonthat said 18 wines are offered by the glass, and the selections change each week.
The menu is spare, fewer than a dozen each of appetizers -- called "light fares" here -- and main courses. Chinese, Japanese and Thai flavors predominate, though most of the dishes are not traditional preparations. The starters are the stars of the menu.
Peking duck, for example, is presented as a roll. Tender slices of roast duck and slivers of scallions are rolled in rice flour pancakes and presented with a side dish of rich hoisin sauce topped with a squiggle of hot mustard. The rolls look more like small wrap sandwiches, though they have the flavors of the traditional Chinese dish.
Zen rolls are the restaurant's version of Vietnamese summer rolls, but here they are plumper and include slices of avocado with shrimp, vermicelli, chopped lettuce and basil leaves.
The Zen Dragon Roll, which looks like typical Japanese maki (roll sushi), includes grilled eel, slivers of tempura sweet potato and scallions. It is topped with a smoky sweet barbecue eel sauce that also flavors an accompanying small salad of spring greens.
A small bamboo steaming basket holds homemade crab shumai. Crisp bits of vegetables complement the sweet crab in this open-face dumpling.
But the crispy salmon roll, Zen's version of Vietnamese spring roll, seemed unfocused. The salmon flavor wasn't assertive enough to compete with the crispy shell, and was overpowered by its three accompanying sauces.
Main courses seemed lackluster. The orange peel chicken had nicely fried chunks of white meat in a shimmery sauce, but there was no discernible taste of orange. Rice in a pot, apparently a take on the Korean dolsot bibimbap, was chicken and mushroom fried rice simply served in a small metal pot. Similarly, the Zen Pyramid was basically fried rice with Asian sausage molded into a pyramid shape. It looked nice -- as all the dishes here do -- but didn't distinguish itself as an entree.
The dessert menu includes no Asian favorites, but rather a selection of desserts from local bakeries, including two types of cheesecake (raspberry brulee and marble chocolate chip), a chocolate mousse cake, a chocolate torte and a chocolate cake with caramel mousse and caramel toffee. The selection makes this a nice spot to stop for dessert and a drink after dinner.
For a more Asian flavor, there is a selection of homemade bubble teas.
--Nancy Lewis (Feb. 2007)