Northern Ireland’s appetite for Asian food will never be satisfied. Judging by the number of Chinese and Indian restaurants and takeaways (about 150 in the Greater Belfast area alone) the love affair with duck, noodles and rice and chicken, curry and naan continues to run smoothly and without end.
Such is the strength of this love that new Asian arrivals are starting to pop up all over the place. We now have the brilliant Nu Delhi Lounge in Belfast city centre (see review next week) and the Cosmo chain stepped up the competition and recently opened its first Northern Ireland operation — a fusion diner in Victoria Square offering dishes from nine Asian culinary cultures.
This sounds like a shot across the bows of the existing Asian fusion restaurant, Zen, which has become an institution in the heart of Belfast’s business district. Popular with the suits at lunchtime and with excited teenagers and romantic twentysomethings in the evenings and weekends, Zen has carved out a reputation for itself as a value-for-money cocktails-and-fried-rice restaurant that is a bit Japanese too.
I was never convinced by the Japanese element of Zen’s menu after having tried some sashimi, udon noodles and other Nipponese dishes that were either too bland or indistinctive. The Chinese food, on the other hand, can be great.
The look and feel of Zen is pure showbusiness. It’s dark, creates spaces with the use of intricately-made wooden screens and curtains through which you can peep, almost unseen, into next door’s booth; there are bird cages and lanterns, backlit frames behind the bar and the whole place exudes a kind of eastern glamour and decadence, a hint of Shanghai in the early 20th century.
Business people like it because it is intimate without being lugubrious and you can get on with your conversations in private. Young ones like it because its night time edginess is predictable and reliable — the only risk they’re going to encounter is a surly waiter.
The menu is a heady mix of ‘fusion’ dishes including starters like Zen dragon tail ribs coated in honey and plum glaze, spring roll Japanese style (with pumpkin and cabbage), roast duck samosa (including scallions and hoi sin sauce), and pan-fried Japanese dumpling (filled with minced chicken, Chinese vegetables and ginger).
The starters menu has dauntingly more and includes extensive choices of sashimi, sushi, maki rolls, salads, soups, teppanyaki and tempura. It’s all clearly enough spelled out, though, so if it’s your first time you won’t feel like a fish out of water.
And that’s the point about Zen — people come here because they’ve been before and have decided what their favourite dish is. They may have been a bit scared when they first came, but now they’re regulars. Our teen is a frequent visitor with her friends and usually goes for the honey peppered shredded chicken. Also on her list of favourites from the mains menu is the garlic butter coriander king prawn. We order both following a selection of openers including spicy seafood soup, which is excellent — a kind of hot and sour miso with plenty of deep, salty flavours and a generous presence of shrimp.
A fried soft shell angry crab starter with red chilli and curry leaf was ok, although it took some time and perseverance to find the flavour through the thick, spicy tempura. The advisor’s chilli squid was a winner. Piled high in a bowl, the tempura squid tasted fresh and tender, cut into large chunks rather than skinny little strips. The chilli and garlic chopped finely into a little sesame oil at the bottom of the bowl contained all the fire and excitement and we shared it out, it was that good.
The honey peppered chicken turned out to be the best version of this dish (you’ve seen it in just about every Chinese in town) around. The honey sweetness is not overpowering or sickly and kicks against the pepper in a fair and balanced fight and the chicken meat itself was juicy, tender, not overdone or dried out. It’s no wonder teenagers love it.
The garlic butter coriander king prawn made a dramatic entrance on white hot skillets, sizzling and spitting as they were lowered before us. The king prawn wouldn’t have the flavour of a brown shrimp but somehow, these worked beautifully and retained a wholesome, briny ocean breathiness that surprised us.
These dishes are great, especially for a family outing. The five of us shared and dipped into each others’ plates, enjoying and comparing. The only mild let-down was the soft noodles, which tasted wrong (there were tiny shreds of carrots in them, which may be the problem).
Apart from that, Zen produced the goods for a reasonable price, mixing glamour, eastern savoir-faire and a good kitchen successfully. The advisor says the cocktails are a fair price for the kick.
Spicy marinated beef fillet x 2 £11.60
Chilli squid £5.80
Honey peppered chicken (starter) £4.80
Honey peppered chicken £11.80
Garlic prawns x 2 £27.60
Chicken kimchi £11.80
Soft crab £6.80
Yaki noodles x 3 £11.40
Fried rice £2.80
Steamed rice £2.80
Sparkling water £3.95
Glass wine £4.45
Diet Coke x 3 £5.55
Tiger beer £3.85
Cosmopolitans x 2 £13.50
Osaka Lady £6.75
Service charge 10% £13.90
55-59 Adelaide Street, Belfast BT2 8FE.
Tel: 028 9023 2244.