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.
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The Wildflour Bakery and Cafeoccupies just a sliver of the Williamsburg Shopping Center in Arlington. There are a couple of tables for eating, but mostly there are refrigerator cases filled with large Italian-style panini, other sandwiches and salads and baked goods including croissants, cookies, cakes and pies, including a very good apple pie that weighs about four pounds.
Often there are fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. And there are homemade dog treats.
It's a nice neighborhood bakery in an era when such specialty shops are often hard to find. And Wildflour is additionally worthwhile because it is run by a nonprofit agency that employs developmentally disabled adults.
One other note: You don't have to pay sales tax.
Wildflour Bakery and Cafe,2910 N. Sycamore St., Arlington, 703-532-8777. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Accessible to people with disabilities.