Restaurant review: It's the Zen party vibe which keeps the crowds coming back
55-59 Adelaide Street, Belfast. Tel: 028 9023 2244
Eddie Fung is a party animal. He has the hair, the teeth and an air of international mystery which makes him the number one super guy you want to put in charge of your social event.
Eddie owns a few restaurants in Belfast and England. The two Belfast operations, Zen in Adelaide Street and House of Zen in St Anne's Square, are sort of Far Eastern and offer a mish-mash of Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
Some of the dishes are particularly good, but we'll come to that. In the meantime, it doesn't really matter what they serve, because it's the exciting, dark, nouveau opium den vibe which attracts customers.
Also, the front-of-house staff are impeccably Chinese, straight from central casting in the same way as James Bond villains are inscrutably Russian, Czech, or Kazakhstani. They are charming, polite, attentive and effortlessly elegant.
The dark interior of Zen is film-set glamorous. Climb upstairs and it's even more swanky; all beaded fronds and low-wattage lights.
All we need to complete the picture is a few roulette wheels, people in evening wear and a couple of men in Black Magic outfits crashing through the windows on zip-lines every 20 minutes or so.
Zen has that sense of occasion like no other restaurant. Young ones love going there before a night out, older ones who should know better go there for business lunches and birthday parties anywhere else are pale and insignificant.
This is where you want to be for a birthday dinner. In fact, the night we were there, in the middle of the week, there were four birthdays, each marked consecutively by cakes bearing weapons-grade Roman candles fizzing and roaring as a Happy Birthday loop played loudly on the tannoy. Everyone in the dining room was delighted and whooped and hollered each time a cake came out.
On this occasion, we were marking a 20th birthday and Zen had been the only choice. I have been to both a few times over the years and, while it always made me smile a wonky smile, I was never sure why.
Was it because of the dramatic interior, the so-so food, or the wannabe downtown Shanghai chic? Whatever it was, I am converted and utterly convinced by the place now. As long as you choose carefully, you can eat as well as you can be entertained.
For instance, the "angry soft-shell crab" and "mad cow ran into the fishing net" may have their crazy attractions, but keep away and go instead for the likes of the safer-sounding crispy duck with crispy pancakes, the wasabi-peppered monkfish tails, or even the freshly grilled BBQ eel maki rolls. In fact, the maki rolls are a power onto themselves on Zen's endless menu (it runs for pages and pages).
The crab roe and tempura prawn roll (kanigo ebi tempura maki) and the soft-shell crab with avocado and roe (tabi kani maki) were voluminous and very good, full of cool ocean flavours, great consistency in the sticky rice and decent flavours.
The top winners came in the form of the honey-peppered shredded chicken, the kimchi stir fry and those monkfish tails. The kimchi, Korea's national dish, was particularly good and packed with that oddly and addictively bitter back taste: those fermenting cabbages have a lot of clout in terms of flavour.
Kimchi is at the heart of the Korean repertoire. My neighbours are from South Korea and have generously cooked for us: the kimchi is always there.
But Zen isn't about the food, good and all as some of it is. It's the Zen party vibe which keeps the crowds clocking back.
So when the dinner plates are cleared, it's back to the cocktails and showbiz.
Dessert cocktails include the now-legendary Zenpresso, a rocket-propelling fluid, which is dominated by coffee. The rest of the contents is a mystery.
It's a happy place and the Fung thing is all about the fun. I loved it.
Angry crab 6.80
Duck pancake 5.80
Ebi tempura maki 10.80
Soft shell crab maki 6.80
Swimmer crab maki 6.80
Steamed rice 3.00
Fried rice (x2) 6.00
Yaki ramen (x3) 11.40
Honey pepper chicken (x3) 35.40
Kimchi chicken 11.80
Garlic butter prawn 13.80
Beer (x3) 11.70
Sparkling water 3.50
Sub Total: 194.40
Service charge 10% 19.40