Zen den is a big deal. On a Monday evening when it isn't even open for dining, a manager escorts groups of people through the passageway into the dimly lit room generously draped in gauzy curtains. "This was AquaKnox?" asks one zen den tourist in amazement.
It's hard to believe this den of kitschy amusement used to be the imaginative seafood emporium that suffocated from its own upscale marine obscurity. But this is what it has become, a sort of parody on the mass merchant who force fits discordant pieces of Asian culture into marketing machinery in hope of generating a concept that instinctively winks at its own cleverness. On the far end of the room is an altarlike structure supporting a massive bust of Buddha. Surrounding this sculpture are candles of various sizes shimmering in the dimness. Along the sides of the room sit large oval tables turbocharged with lazy Susans and tucked into cubicles created by "sheer-curtain pagoda enclosures."
The center of the dining room is matted with a 24-foot grass-green shag carpet. The rest of the space is populated with birch floor lamps, hanging-pendant lanterns and bamboo this and thats. And here's the crowning doozy: Zen den contains a dining cell called the opium den temple of love. This small room has low-slung tables with low seating, ottomans upholstered in retro jungle camouflage and pillows lining the walls. A rack for shoes is perched on one of the three steps leading up this slightly raised dining amusement. Now maybe it is just me, but it seems just a little odd that a space called "zen den," named for a Japanese spiritual practice, would vigorously drum about such things as lazy Susans and opium den temples of love (opium dens being an often tragic result of the British-controlled opium trade with China).
This is the sort of indiscriminate cultural crossbreeding that can give you a headache, and that's not all the static present here. Pithy sayings are everywhere: on the menu, on the walls, the T-shirts of the bus crew. Sayings like "lazy boy eats with a spoon" and "one in the world, one with everything" or the ubiquitous "eat rice." The music fluctuates from '70s funk to light techno club to sultry contemporary. In the bar, called Fishbowl, it's bamboo rec-room camp and loud drinks with parasols, sort of an urban penal colony for heedless Trader Vic-tims.
This static infects the food, which like the décor seems oblivious to the nuances, or in some cases chasms, that separate various Asian cuisines. Remarkably, though it's a little bastardized in zen den, the Japanese cuisine works pretty well. The sushi, from the hamachi (yellow tail) to the maguro (tuna) is fresh, cool and silky--no sinuous string to funk up your chew. Taco (octopus) sashimi was tender, cool and well-presented. The miso soup, a mild, clean rendition, was rich in an understated way, and the understatements were fortified with lots of floating mushroom slices, scallion bits and tofu. Like the menu proclaims, the lazy boy is given no spoon, not even those clever little ceramic pelican bill shovels sometimes distributed in sushi restaurants.
The fried calamari seasoned with chili, salt and pepper was respectable, if a little weird. Instead of tentacles bent and coiled and knitted with rings of squid torso, the calamari was cut like perfectly symmetrical french fries or perhaps mini fish sticks. They were crisp, tender, juicy and very sweet. Chicken sung bao lettuce cups, sort of a take on the chicken in lettuce wraps served at P.F. Chang's, arrive on two plates: one holding the diced, dark brown chicken and the other three bright, wet iceberg lettuce-leaf cups. The chicken was studded with onion and cooked carrot, but the overall feel of the combined sludge was grease. The sauce had a good flavor though, despite the West Texas texture.
Once the fare ventured beyond sushi-bar staples and slightly atypical bar nibbles, Fishbowl-zen den took on a strain of opium delirium--but just a strain. With maybe one or two exceptions, the flaws were slight, yet potent enough to shift dishes out of balance.
Firecracker chicken and rice noodle chow fun with fermented black beans and fresh chili (say that fast after an hour in the opium den temple of love) contained moist chicken and wide supple rice noodles. But the overall effect was underwhelming; nothing transcended the mix, and the mix in sum certainly had no levity.
The crab and micro-sprout egg foo young consisted of a pair of fluffy light egg squares stuffed with deliciously brackish crabmeat and crisp sprouts. The yellow streaked-with-white egg shapes were soiled with a smooth, well-balanced oyster sauce--tasty and deft.
Our hopes were well above sea level for the pad Thai in tamarind sauce, and we were let down. The noodles were sticky and clumped together, and while an undercurrent of tang is desirable in pad Thai sauce, this one was a powerful undertow, knocking the whole thing out of whack. The chicken was moist and tender, but overall the mix was just a bit too mushy.
One dish that sounded more than a little provocative is the sizzling beef tenderloin Korean style with kim chi and wok-seared veggies. Yet the beef, as primary provocateur, deflates with the first bite. Curiously, the slices of beef, wok tortured into black (outside) and battleship gray (inside), were tender, but bland and mealy, like predigested burlap, perhaps. The vegetables--onion and asparagus--were delicious, as was the ramekin of fiery kim chi in the center of the plate.
Three-mushroom (shitake, portobello, wood ear) and ginger-fried brown rice contained provocative hints on the menu, but from fork to lips the stir dissipated. The dish was mostly bland and what did rise above dullness had an off taste, like sour earth or something, only not that exciting.
Stir-fried Hokkien noodle canton B.B.Q. pork with scallions and tangy soy had perhaps the most striking flaw, and the really annoying thing about this flaw is that, save for it, the dish was really quite good--well-textured, well-balanced, hearty. But the chips of pork were overcooked and had an old, off taste, as if the meat were freezer-burned. This was more noticeable because a couple of pieces of the meat were sweet and tasty, though overcooked, while the rest of it was leaning dangerously into rancidity.
Dessert picked up, though. Almost. The cheesecake egg rolls, fried pastry filled with cream cheesy goo, were good with sweetness offset by the cheese pungency, like real cheesecake, but thrown on its ear by twisted temperature and texture. Yet it was paired with a miserable raspberry sauce for dipping that had all the fresh, authentic fruit flavor of generic jam.
One thing that could use a little of the tongue-in-cheek cuteness of the concept is the service. It was attentive but abrupt and clumsy. Pacing was choppy, broken up by waits between order and delivery, even when the place was empty, and on one occasion a server left our table to put in our entrée requests before everyone had placed their orders.
Fishbowl-zen den cuteness was fun at first. As a bar scene with sake, Japanese beer and specialty drinks coupled with decent sushi, the place is fine, but for much more, it gets tedious; it almost seems as though the kitchen and service staffs are distracted by the "ain't we clever" shenanigans. This Buddha has no clothes.