We thought we’d check in with Zen Sushi to see how the place is doing.
Zen opened in 2015, but not being part of the sushi craze, I didn’t pay attention. That was a big mistake.
I expected a little hole-in-the-wall, local place, but Zen resides in the beautifully renovated Phoenix Building. A family-owned restaurant with a long history in the sushi business, the owners also have restaurants in Milwaukee and Chicago.
Upon entering, we were guided to a spacious dining area with instrumental music playing in the background. Zen has a pronounced Japanese vibe, with paper lanterns hanging above and an eclectic array of artifacts displayed along the walls.
With no shortage of tables and additional patio seating, the place can pack in a crowd. We were lucky enough to be seated along the windows looking out onto East Grand Avenue.
The lengthy and diverse cocktail menu was another great surprise as we each wanted to try something different. I had a Zen Old Fashioned ($9.95) with sake, Korbel brandy, muddled cherries and bitters. Jennifer chose the Bae Bae-tini ($7.95), which was a refreshing concoction of vodka, pineapple juice, lime juice, simple syrup and pear juice served straight up with a slice of lemon and lime—the perfect summertime drink. Helene had the plain-yet-invigorating Cucumber Collins ($7.95), which consisted of cucumber vodka, fresh cucumber, lime juice and soda.
We did our best to sample our way through the menu, starting with the appetizers.
First, there was the tuna poke bowl ($7.95), which was almost too rich with bite-sized chunks of raw tuna in a spicy chili sauce. Next, we moved on to the shu-mai ($5.95), which featured delicate Japanese shrimp dumplings.
Finally, our unanimous favorite was the Korean barbecue tacos ($6.95). We chose the beef over the pork, and they were absolutely outstanding. The flavors of the succulent beef, fresh corn, tomatoes, onions and shredded cabbage all were delicious, but what brought it to transcendence was the slightly spicy sauce boasting mango and onion. It was a great combination of tastes.
My entree choice was the kal-bi ($19.95), which is Asian pear soy-marinated short ribs. They had a sweet flavor but were too chewy for my taste.
Our dinners also came with a delicate miso soup (which was one of the best I’ve had) and a crisp salad with a creamy ginger house dressing.
Jennifer opted for the salmon teriyaki ($18.95), which was one of the Obento entrees. Common in Japanese cuisine, the dinner box included fried dumplings stuffed with meat and veggies, salad with the traditional Japanese dressing, fried rice and California rolls. The grilled salmon served on a bed of shredded cabbage, zucchini and carrots was cooked to perfection, and it was served with a teriyaki glaze that was flavorful but not overpowering.
Nikki ordered the beef bibimbop ($15.95), a Korean rice dish served in a steaming-hot stone bowl. Like many of our other dishes, the presentation was stunning. The entree was served with a colorful mound of sliced vegetables and tangy soy-marinated beef strips over rice with an artfully placed fried egg over the top.
The assembly was for looks only, though. After a cautious dose of the accompanying pepper sauce (both sweet and hot) and a thorough mixing, Nikki was ready to eat. The heat from the stone bowl had created a crusty layer of rice which gave the otherwise mushy but delicious meal an interesting burst of texture.
Helene chose the sashimi combo ($14.95). The difference between sashimi and sushi is that sashimi is raw fish or meat served without rice and sushi is vinegared rice that may or may not be served with raw fish or meat. The combo came with a spicy tuna roll (sushi) and sashimi-style salmon, tuna and yellowtail. All were beautiful and melted in her mouth.
Despite all of the food we ordered, we still made room for dessert. Zen Sushi offers only a few choices: mochi ice cream, which is Japanese-style ice cream wrapped in sticky rice dough ($5.95); green tea ice cream ($3.95); and a chocolate souffle cake ($6.95). We went with the cake, which was warm, rich, dense and oh so lovely. It was accompanied by a luscious scoop of Zen’s subtly sweet but very creamy green tea ice cream.
If raw fish makes you squeamish, remember that not all sushi is raw and that Zen Sushi offers a variety of food for the adventurous and cautious alike.
The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.