Tuesday, March 11, 2014
In a city that orbits in such a fine-dining galaxy it was only a matter of time before a respectable Chinese restaurant would land in Portland.
That puts the recently opened Zen Chinese Bistro, at 45 Danforth Street, at center stage. By standards, it’s the precocious hipster in an otherwise dull sea of clichéd westernized Chinese eateries and carryout joints that populate so many strip malls around Maine.
Formerly occupied by District, a neighborhood bar and grill of minor repute, Zen opened a few months back. Since then it has gained a steady following of Portlanders starved for decent Chinese cooking served in a stylish setting.
Veteran Freeport restaurateur Kemal Cigri (Mediterranean Grill )and co-owner/chef Yuang Deng (at last a chef with an ancestral heritage!) have devised a traditional menu of eastern mainstays as well as more ceremoniously esoteric provincial dishes that offer real interest.
The dining space itself was transformed from its quasi clubby look from District’s day to a somewhat more rakish repose.
That means you won’t encounter the usual kitschy décor of red-lacquered, smoked-mirror- covered walls, snake plants or fish tanks with strange species swimming like they’re about ready to break dance.
You enter into an attractive bar area that sports high-top tables for dining and cocktails as well as comfortable dinner booths. The main dining room is upstairs. And it’s large and airy even under its banner of walls painted deep electric blue.
After many visits over the last several months, Zen has become my de facto dining spot when I have a yen for Chinese food. It’s slightly more expensive than places like Panda Garden along the Brighton Ave. strip. And it’s so much better.
Let me be clear, though, the cooking is not necessarily cutting edge or crafty. There’s no fusion gimmickry or sleight-of-hand flavors in surreptitious guises. Instead it’s good solid renditions of the genre, using quality local ingredients prepared with care.
The menu still has many of the familiar sounding dishes found elsewhere. To wit: Crab Rangoon, Chicken Fingers, Egg Rolls, Sweet and Sour Soup and the like are available as are the giant platters of Fried Jumbo Shrimp, which the table of eight next to us devoured along with big, impressive tumblers of Polynesian style cocktails.
More refined starters included Shrimp Shui Mai—gossamer light and delicate--and steamed or fried pork or vegetable dumplings, which were two dim-sum delights.
If you’ve been weaned on the ubiquity of General Tso’s Chicken you’ll find it here too along with other traditional stalwarts like Sesame Beef and Imperial Pork. These are always reliable crowd pleasers and the kitchen does a good job with these.
But don’t miss the treasure trove of more exotic preparations on and off the menu. These are dishes indicative of Chinese provincial cooking.
A good way to experience this is to let owner Kemel Cigri guide you to some off-menu items, and you’ll begin to understand the depth of what this kitchen can do.
We did that recently, and the procession of dishes that followed was impressive. It included Chow Foon Noodles (very wide and dense rice noodles) wrapped around beef in a sophisticated sauce of glazed scallions and greens.
The Bok Choy with Chicken and Tofu was another surprise stunner especially for me since I generally don’t enjoy tofu in any guise.
The flavors in the mélange of Beef Satay and Teriyaki Chicken were complex and lingering. And perhaps my most favorite dish was the large wedge of steamed salmon served under a veil of shredded ginger and scallions. It was perfectly cooked, moist and delectable with just enough treacle-sweet overtones.
The service staff is young and energetic—no tattoo armor here----and they know their menu well enough to lead you through the maze of this big menu.
The dessert list is short and sweet. I haven’t yet tried the cheesecake, which is spiked with ginger, green tea, key lime and chocolate brandy nor have I had the pleasure of the house ginger or green tea ice cream. But I will the next time I go to Zen.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.