Mt. Fuji and Zen crowd Uptown's overgrown Asian cuisine market

Lyndale and Hennepin are peppered with a plethora of Asian fusion options

When I found out about the openings of Zen Asian Contemporary at Lyn-Lake and Mt. Fuji on 28th and Hennepin, my first response was to stifle a yawn. I was so over the idea of more Asian food in Uptown: The neighborhood needs another hip, Eastern eatery like it needs another road construction project. Yet on second thought, I had to acknowledge that more competition was probably a good thing, as it might encourage the other restaurants to raise the bar. If you've recently suffered through one of Kinhdo's lackluster lunch specials, you'll probably agree with me.

Most restaurateurs who move into Uptown realize that finicky diners won't show up just because their restaurant exists. There are a lot of eating-out options in Uptown, and many of those restaurants are among the best of their kind in the Twin Cities. If you're going to plunk an Asian restaurant in the area's most competitive ethnic dining market—a neighborhood already saturated with four Thai restaurants, three sushi joints, and numerous Chinese, Malaysian, and Vietnamese eateries over on Nicollet Avenue—it had better stand out from the others.

Zen has distinguished itself with a menu that reads like Asia's greatest culinary hits, offering curry, pho, fried rice, and pad Thai, among other familiar favorites. The cross-cultural approach reminds me a bit of Chino Latino, except that after a night at Zen you're much less likely to wake up the next morning with a pounding headache and a whopping credit card bill. Zen, instead, has a calm, almost meditative ambiance. Its dining room is spare but pleasant, with purple walls and gauzy curtains partitioning the tables. (The vibe at times can be a little too sedate, as on the weeknight I shared the room with only two other parties—one of which included another restaurant critic.)

East meets West in Zen's orange-glazed duck
Alma Guzman
East meets West in Zen's orange-glazed duck

Location Info


Zen Asian Contemporary

3016 Lyndale Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street


3016 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
appetizers $6-$10, entrées $11-$20

2819 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
appetizers $5-$11, entrées $14-$26

Owner Andy Kor describes Zen's approach as Asian contemporary, a hybrid of Eastern ingredients and Western culinary technique. The orange-glazed duck may be the best example of the concept, fusing Peking roast duck and Continental duck l'orange. The bird is marinated, steamed, and baked, then artfully arranged on an oversize platter. The meat was perfectly tender, pink in the center, and rich with the flavors of Asian five spice and French jus. I didn't know whether to acknowledge the chef with a merci, a xie xie, or a thank you, but the bird tasted as good as it looked.

The kitchen staff also prepares more traditional dishes, including Korean short ribs that I'd consider among the best in the Twin Cities. They're infused with a sweet-salty soy marinade and grilled to a smoky char that should eliminate the need for Uptowners to travel to St. Paul or the suburbs for their carnivorous fix. Zen also offers a nice variation on Thailand's hot-sour tom yum soup, which uses tomato to give it a deep orange hue and enhance its acidity, and on a green papaya salad tossed with grilled shrimp, mesclun, mint, peanuts, and ginger dressing.

All the Zen dishes I tried were light, fresh, and deftly cooked, though several lacked the robust seasoning one would expect from a part of the world known for its well-stocked spice cupboards. For some diners, this isn't necessarily a bad thing: If I were taking an unadventurous eater for her first taste of curry, I'd recommend Zen's as a training-wheels version; it tastes like béchamel enhanced with coconut milk and hot peppers. But it's a shadow of what I hope for in such a dish—a screaming match of fiery, pungent, woodsy, sweet, sour, and tropical flavors.

I was similarly disappointed by the Zen Seafood Hot Pot. It has lots of great ingredients—fish, shrimp, scallops, calamari, rice noodles, pea pods, greens, and carrots—but its thin broth, infused with ginger, tamarind, and lemongrass, had none of those distinct flavors, just a muddied floral sweetness. The sesame tempura tofu, too, was unremarkable, as it was coated in a sauce that tasted like spicy corn syrup. While I liked the edible shoestring potato bowl of the "bird's nest trio," (a riff on a Chinese dish made with taro root), the seafood stew inside had a mild miso sauce that was rather one-dimensional.

To me, Zen's wonton Napoleon appetizer—the crispy wraps are layered with crab, cream cheese, and avocado like lasagna—reflected the restaurant's missed opportunities. Paired with salad greens and a bold ginger-peach sauce, the wonton was excellent—except for its sodden, tinned-tasting crab. Overall, I liked Zen's spirit, but the execution wasn't quite there.

For years, 2819 Hennepin has been a property that not even We Buy Ugly Houses would likely have touched. It was a large, awkward, U-shaped space that chewed up restaurants like a Cuisinart. After churning through the Uptown Diner, Taj of India, Antoine's Creole Maison, and the unfortunately named Mysore, the space's institutional carpet and dingy walls were long overdue for a makeover.

Finally, the lease was snapped up by someone with the resources and design sensibilities to transform the place from eyesore to eye candy. Kevin Liu, co-owner of the four-year-old Mt. Fuji Japanese restaurant in Maple Grove, was looking to open a second location, and after a months-long renovation, the space is hardly recognizable. The hulking central staircase, which has always made the entrance confusing, now smartly divides the restaurant into two narrow rooms, one with a bar, the other with a sushi counter. The space has dark booths; sophisticated, wasabi-green walls; and a glowing, backlit bar. With a few abstract paintings and sexy, white leather barstools, it's finally become the sort of place inviting enough to stick around.

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