Zen Contemporary Asian: Enlightenment the second time around

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by Jeremy Iggers | May 6, 2009 • Buddhism teaches us that attachment to desire is the cause of human suffering, and that suffering ceases when we let go of attachment to desire. This is a valuable lesson to keep in mind when you experience Zen – the restaurant at Lyndale and Lake, not the Buddhist spiritual discipline. Actually, it’s useful to keep in mind when you practice Zen meditation, except that you aren’t really supposed to keep anything in mind when you practice Zen.

Iggers Digest is the blog of Jeremy Iggers, the TC Media Alliance’s executive director. Jeremy is also the creator of TCFoodies, a local food networking site.

At any rate, I set out last Thursday with a desire to Dine Out For Life, – i.e., dine at a restaurant that was participating in the fundraiser for the Aliveness Project – but that desire was frustrated at every turn. First we headed for El Meson, where there was a 45 minute wait. Erin Ungerman, who owns the restaurant with her husband, chef Hector Ruiz, tried to call their sister restaurant, Cafe Ena, but all lines were busy, Next we drove to 38th and Grand to check two other favorites, but there was a line out the door at Victor’s 1959 Cafe, and a long wait at the Cafe on Grand.

Finally, as we were driving down Lyndale, we spotted a big sign in the window of Zen Contemporary Asian Cusine, advertising half-price bottles of wine Sunday through Thursday with two dinner entrees, so we decided to give it a try.

This was actually a second visit – we visited Zen shortly after it opened, and found it uneven, but that was early days, and, we learned, the chef’s night off. On that first visit, the wonton Napoleon, layers of crab meat, avocado and cream cheese on crisply fried wonton skins, was delightful, but the entrees were a bit disappointing.Actually, they weren’t bad, just not as interesting and sophisticated as the name, and the sophisticated decor led me to expect.

This second time around, same story: a terrific appetizer of calamari over a smoked tomato and lemon grass coulis, and then entrees that didn’t quite live up to expectations. The sesame tempura shrimp and the fragrant garlic beef (both $10.95) were both reasonably priced and served in generous portions, but they both seemed more like the kind of fare you would get at a better-than-average Chinese American restaurant than dishes on the cutting edge of Asian Fusion. (The tempura wasn’t delicate and lacy, like authentic Japanese tempura, and the beef dish was served with lots of broccoli and red bell peppers.)

Of course, expectation is just another word for desire, and if I were to go back for a third visit, letting go of all desire, I might experience Zen very differently, as a very attractive restaurant that serves better than average Chinese-American and Asian dishes at very reasonable prices, and has a really good deal on wines, too. There are a bunch of other dishes that I would still like to try, like the appetizer of chawan-mushi, a Japanese seafood custard ($6.95), and the Pho, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup ($7.95), and the Korean short ribs with spicy slaw ($13.95), but if I go back, it will be with lowered expectations.

As for the half-price wines Sunday through Thursday, the wines are mostly labels that I had never heard of, and some of them come from wineries that Google has never heard of, like Mount Linden from California, which seems to be mostly distributed in Minnesota. But it still seems to be a very good deal. The Mount Linden Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet (all $18 a bottle at full price) show up on other local wine lists for $22-$32; at $9 a bottle, they sound like a pretty good deal to me. We splurged on a Piattelli Malbec from Argentina, (regularly $28), which turned out to be a very drinkable well-rounded wine.

3016 Lyndale Avenue S. | Minneapolis, (612) 822-8896.

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