Belfast’s reputation as a hub of quality Chinese restaurants remains intact following the opening of Eddie Fung’s House of Zen.
Staying with the James-Bond-at-Bali-Nusa-Dua-Beach-Resort theme that worked so well at the first Zen in Adelaide Street, the dark interior is plush, glamorous, a bit mysterious and distinctly Far Eastern. There are round booths and chain curtains, back-lit cocktail bar and silver-flecked black wallpaper. The banquette and chairs are upholstered in a royal French blue leather. Tiny red Chinese lanterns with their jaunty little tassels hang above each table creating intimacy as well as clever lighting.
I’m not expecting much by way of the food — Zen has always been about mood and ambience with friendly, if slow, service. I was never convinced by the Japanese offerings in the original Zen menu and am happy to see none of it appears on the House of Zen card.
What does appear is more daring. There are exciting temptations rarely seen in Chinese restaurants — lamb shank, smoked chicken and pork belly, for instance. And for those who are addicted as I am to the classic chilli blackbean sauce, satay, wok-fried egg noodles and, king of the pile, crispy shredded chicken in honey pepper sauce, you can relax — the favourites are all there.
The crowd in here on a Sunday evening is mixed families and very young couples. This tells you it’s a safe place for those who aren’t sure about a lot of things, including eating out, food in general, what the girlfriend/boyfriend thinks of you and how to entertain the children for 45 minutes before they go toke and start wrecking the furniture.
And that’s why House of Zen is good for Sunday evenings, particularly after a hard weekend. You don’t want to think about anything other than your own comfort.
I kick off with Shanghai-style hot and sour soup with fresh, hand-pulled shredded chicken. It’s like kosher food from the Far East. The soup is spicy with chilli but this is tempered by lots of noodles and tiny shiitakes and loads of chicken meat. It’s delicious and fortifying and opens the gates to the dim sum platter (for two people and allow 15 minutes). Plenty of top presentation tools include deep bamboo basket from which the lid is removed to reveal the eight large steamed har gau dumplings and shumai within. They are multi-coloured, the gelatinous skin green on one, pink on another. Inside are whole prawns with some ginger and chilli. The pork shumai made with minced spicy meats are even bigger and packed with flavours.
The smaller Minne is enjoying a chicken satay skewer that is very good, with deep peanutty flavours. The advisor has been toying with a hard decision between the deep-fried angry soft-shell crab, stir-fried with birds-eye chilli, five spices and creamy salad dressing or the crispy squid. She opts for the latter for fear that deep-fried angry crabs may prompt an unwanted reaction. The squid has been stir-fried and is encrusted with a light salty coating. She approves of this immensely and eats slowly to make it last.
A long wait ensues, but we don’t mind. It’s early evening and there are no deadlines. (But I’m wondering if anyone who wants to catch a show at the MAC 10 yards away might find the faster service of neighbouring 4th Wall, Salt Bistro and Potted Hen more reassuring.) And anyway, no-one wants to rush a lamb shank, which looks appetising when it arrives in a clay pot bathing in a bubbling bouillon with shallots, shiitakes and parsnip. A couple of bay leaves give it a French flavour and the impression is of something closer to Vietnamese, whose food was influenced by the colonial chefs from the Third Republic.
The shank is covered with a little sprinking of shredded spinach and crispy fried leeks. The meat falls off the bone at the slightest prod and with the soft noodles provides a great meal of comfort food. The advisor’s slow-braised pork ribs served with red yeast rice, mirin, rock sugar and Shaoshing wine sauce. The mirin is Japanese, a kind of sweet rice wine not unlike sake, but the flavours are very mainland China. I try one and want to eat the rest of them. The salt and chilli chicken — a kind of Chinese chicken goujons served with scallions — is perfect fodder for Charlotte.
Everyone’s happy. The Asahi on draught is chilled and you can get prosecco by the glass (it’s not cheap, though, at £6.35). There is a Zen-like quality to the restaurant — it’s serene and calm, like a warm chapel. Perfect for lapsed church goers.
Chicken satay £4.80
Hot and sour soup £3.80
Dim sum platter £8.40
Salt & chilli chicken £10.80
Lamb shank £13.80
Noodles x 2 £7.20
Egg fried rice £2.80
Glass of prosecco £6.35
Pint Asahi £4.20
Sparking water £1.80
Diet Coke £1.80
St Anne’s Square, Edward Street,Belfast BT1 2LR. Tel: 028 90278688