April 25, 2008
20 Le Thanh Ton Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Yasai with lime, salt and miso ($1.50 per person)
Japanese Curry with Pork and Yams ($5)
Zaru Udon ($7)
Gyu miso yaki – U.S. beef with miso marinade ($3.80) and quail egg ($1.50)
Sunagimo – chicken gizzards ($2.20)
Chef’s special roll ($7.80)
Green tea ice cream with red beans and rice balls (complimentary)
Located amidst the sea of Japanese restaurants on Le Thanh Ton Street in District 1, Zen shows that there’s more to Japanese food than spicy tuna rolls.
A last minute reservation on a bustling Friday night left my dining companion and I seated at the sushi bar, which proved to be a serendipitously wonderful experience with chefs Linh and Linh manning the counter. Although it was my first visit, the chefs treated me like a regular, which made my evening not only delicious, but delightfully fun.
Though the main dining area is modest in size, Zen boasts a popular lounge and a number of private rooms where patrons can dine shoeless upon tatami mats in traditional Japanese fashion. Perhaps the most unique feature of the restaurant is the yakitori station located behind a glass window toward the rear of the room.
While perusing the extensive menu, we snacked on a serving of yasai that was placed upon the table prior to our arrival. The yasai consisted of cabbage, cucumber, jicama, celery and carrots served alongside miso, lime and salt. The raw veggies and simple sauces cleansed our palettes and prepared us for the meal to come ($1.50 USD per person).
The highlight of the evening was the Zaru Udon ($7 USD)-chilled, wheat-based noodles topped with shredded nori (seaweed) and served on a zaru, a sieve-like bamboo tray. A dashi (stock) broth comprised of mirin (rice wine), sugar, kelp, dried bonito flakes and shoyu (light soy sauce) accompanied the noodles along with pickled cucumbers and thinly sliced spring onions. The noodle’s texture was luxuriously thick, and they tasted phenomenal dipped in the light and salty broth with scattered bits of scallions.
To contrast the cool, clean flavors of the udon noodles, we chose a traditional curry ($5 USD) for our second entree. Although curry is quite popular in Japan, it has yet to catch on with international Japanese food enthusiasts. Thicker and milder than its Indian counterpart, Zen’s curry was hearty and full of tender pieces of pork and sweet yam. Now, this is soul food.
To round out our meal, we ordered a selection of yakitori including the uzura tamago (quail egg – $1.50 USD), sunagimo (chicken gizzards – $2.20 USD) and the gyu miso yaki (U.S. beef with miso marinade – $3.80 USD). Meat on a stick is Zen’s specialty and, as expected, it was deftly executed. The quail eggs, which were soaked in rice wine and coated in salty and sweet seasonings prior to meeting the grill, were simply satisfying. The chicken gizzards were the least flavorful of the bunch and a smidge over-cooked. The briefly seared beef with miso stole our hearts; it had been much too long since we indulged in meat this tender and rare.
Although we avoided ordering sushi this evening, Chef Linh insisted on making a special roll for us to close out our meal, and sweet offers are meant to be obliged. The roll he concocted contained everything but the kitchen sink—eel, crab, tomago (sweet egg), Kabayaki sauce, chili sauce, cucumber and slivers of avocado ($7.80 USD). The eel and Kabayaki sauce stood out among the plethora of ingredients within the sweet and filling roll. Making friends with the hardworking chefs behind the counter definitely has some perks!
In addition to the one-of-a-kind roll, the chef also constructed an off-the-menu dessert for us—green tea ice cream with red beans and rice balls. The red bean and rice ball elements reminded me of Vietnamese che but were more subtlety sugary. The green tea ice cream could have been firmer, but it paired surprisingly well with the red beans.
Come to Zen for the polished service and solid food, and you might just leave with a couple of new friends.
Published in AsiaLIFE Magazine June 2008