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.)
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.
The sake martini is a nice excuse to linger, a lofty mix that's the best of both drinks, garnished with a cucumber ribbon. If you're feeling more playful, try the Japanese Green, a luminescent concoction of rum, melon liqueur, and coconut that's topped with a maraschino cherry and a paper umbrella. The prices, $6.95 and $6.25 respectively for those two drinks, are decidedly less than what you'd expect to pay in the area. (The Red Dragon's Wondrous Punch has crept up to a wallet-shuddering $10.25.)
While Mt. Fuji does serve a few meat and seafood entrées and noodle dishes, it's first and foremost a sushi spot. (I thought the ika butter, or squid, appetizer was rather rubbery, but I would recommend the shrimp in chile sauce, a sweet-tart, onion-studded riff on shrimp cocktail.)
Liu describes Mt. Fuji's sushi as "French style," but I've also heard the term "sosaku," or "creative," sushi tossed around, which describes a fusion approach to creating elaborate rolls topped with special sauces. Rolls might be stuffed with mango, wrapped in pink soybean paper, and decorated with intricate edible garnishes—one made from twisted daikon radish ribbons looked almost like a peony blossom.
Not everything works. The lobster roll looked beautiful, garnished with a crimson crustacean shell, but its tempura-fried flesh might have been mistaken for shrimp, and its teriyaki-like glaze was too cloying. The Uptown roll, which is lumps of spicy tuna and avocado wrapped with salmon sashimi and drizzled with a miso sauce and spicy mayonnaise, had lovely flavor but a mushy texture that was the edible equivalent of a limp handshake. But when all systems are go, the result is a roll like the Treasure Island, which tastes just like an adventure. The roll is stuffed with yellowtail and tuna, accented with kampyo (a sweet pickled gourd that tastes a bit like umi, or fermented plum), and topped with a mound of sweet blue crab, a sprinkle of tiny tobiko bubbles, and tempura crunches that reminded me of fried Rice Krispies.
I don't think either Mt. Fuji or Zen is trying to take on the neighborhood heavyweights—Chino will always offer a livelier scene, Jasmine Deli a better value, and Moto-i a superior sake selection. But these restaurants' ambitions don't necessarily need to be sky-high for the places to be successful. Zen's diverse menu is good for groups who can't all agree on Chinese or Vietnamese or Thai. Mt. Fuji's fusion approach is similar to Tiger Sushi's, yet its clubbier atmosphere and more aggressive happy-hour pricing (select rolls are discounted between a third and half off) will perhaps make it different enough. Even if Zen and Mt. Fuji haven't yet proved themselves, they're making the case that Uptown will always have room for a few more Asian restaurants.