By Kenneth LaFave
Asian fusion is peaking. Restaurants touting a blend of recipes and flavors from Japan, Thailand, Korea and regions of China are almost as common as craft-beer restaurants. The only way for a new Asian fusion place to stand out is to offer the highest quality, along with twists on traditional recipes and the expected range of flavors.
Which brings us to Zen Culinary.
Zen Culinary, which opened in December 2016, is located amid the mess of concrete and quick-food joints that snarl the area of the 101 and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard. It’s a little hard to find, but when you do and you walk through the door, suddenly, you are in Kauai: the design is modern, but the smells are seafood and soy and whisky. Booths are cozy; choose a table if you need ample space. More importantly, the people are welcoming. Service at the one of the Valley’s newest odes to Asia is never rushed, and always ready to answer your questions and cater to your needs.
Zen Culinary features soups, salads, curries, rice and noodle dishes at moderate prices. If an entrée is your plan, however, expect things to get a bit pricey. Entrée prices range from $22 for baby back ribs in Korean-style barbeque fashion with kimchi, to $56 for bone-in prime ribeye. The latter bears no sign of Asian influence, but I imagine it would satisfy the demanding meat-eater in your party.
My companion and I chose something between the extremes: Smoked Tea Seabass, $36. Like most places, Zen offers Chilean seabass, the fish that until the 1970s and a marketing rebranding was given the unappealing name, “toothfish.” Over the decades, we’ve come to accept the toothfish as true seabass, and the designation is now universal. It’s just as well. I doubt anyone would’ve eaten something called “toothfish,” and then we wouldn’t have the famous buttery rich experience that the fish provides.
The key to great seabass is that the preparation doesn’t overwhelm the fish. At Zen Culinary, the fish is brined in lapsang souchong, the smoky Chinese tea that tastes like liquid campfire. Their recipe also calls for a ginger-infused soy, and between these two ingredients, the fish is enlivened without losing any of its richness. The result, accompanied by perfectly grilled asparagus, is worth is own zen koan: What is both toothsome and smoky? Answer: eat this entrée.
The less expensive end of the menu offers much to explore. We shared some Tom Ka soup, the addicting coconut-based hot and sour concoction. At $14 this is a great deal, and there’s plenty for two. Other options include a Pad Thai with rice noodles ($12 for chicken or pork; $16 for shrimp or beef); a sashimi of fluke with spicy ramen ($16); a variation on a French favorite, the Tuna Tataki Nicoise ($18), a sesame-accented take on the traditional combo of tuna, long beans and potato.
When we go back, however, there is one must-try dish on our list: The Coconut Curry Custard ($18). Not a dessert, it’s a thick red curry of melong basa (a fresh-water fish) and egg, served in a coconut.
There’ also a sushi bar, and a well-stocked liquor bar featuring Japanese whiskies. Dessert is not listed, but ask your server for the chocolate cake made on premises.
Zen Culinary is located at 15544 N. Pima Road. For more information, call 480-296-0030 or visit zenculinary.com.