Fusion cooking is nothing new. (Back in his standup days in the early Sixties, Dick Cavett told a joke about a trendy new Chinese-German restaurant where "the only problem is that an hour later, you're hungry for power.") I myself am perfectly happy with any fresh culinary configurations that restaurateurs want to throw at me; recently it's gotten to the point where it seems like every other dinner is some form of California-cuisine mish-mash.
Zen, a new multicultural sort of hangout on the island of Alameda, features omni-ethnic cookery that would seem to be just the palate-distracting ticket. Japan is represented on the menu by sashimi, enoki, and yakitori. The fettuccini and carpaccio of Italy share kitchen space with Hawaiian lomi lomi and Korean kimchi. British fish and chips, Chinese fried rice, Portuguese clams and sausage, and a positively Gallic seafood gratin complete with baguette are prominently advertised. And how about that grilled rib-eye, the Greek feta, the Caribbean ceviche? The kitchen's sheer zest for mixing and matching is endearing and occasionally successful, but at other times a certain lack of focus and balance overwhelm the dishes themselves. To paraphrase old Rudyard, the gustatory twain just doesn't seem to meet.
The restaurant is located near the busy intersection of Park and Santa Clara in an enviable neighborhood that houses a Korean market, popular ice cream parlor, cafes, and saloons. A granite-slab fountain and a large Buddha greet diners at the entrance, and the striking interior is done almost entirely in blood-red and black, with a few dozen white, rose, and red paper lanterns adding festive accents. The tables are set with attractive plates, bowls, and saucers in a variety of shapes and sizes, and the deeply comfy banquettes against the wall inspire a pleasantly relaxed attitude.
Zen describes itself as a small-plates establishment, but the platters are plenty big enough to share, despite their minimal price tag — less than a third of the menu items are more than $10. One of the best was the vermicelli, in which the tender, slender noodles captured the diverse flavors of mango, garden greens, and roast duck to delicious effect. Mentaiko, the salted Japanese pollock roe usually eaten with rice, added plenty of zip to an especially cross-cultural (and absolutely yummy) spaghetti dish dressed with garlic, onions, enoki mushrooms, and parmesan. And the kimchi fried rice, a gloriously greasy bowl of home-style short-grains ribboned with onions, beef, and bracingly pickled radish, was spicy, tangy, hearty, and comforting all at once.
Other dishes weren't as successful. The zen melt sounded intriguing — ahi, tobiko, avocado, and Swiss cheese on ciabatta bread — but in the end it was just another tuna melt with a bit of crunch: agreeable but nothing special. The chicken-gizzard yakitori, two skewers of rock-hard gristle with the flavor of especially sooty carcinogens, wasn't agreeable at all. The best thing about the fish and chips were the Asian fries, thick fingers of taro and sweet potato wrapped in a light, crunchy tempura-like coating, but the panko-crusted sole filets were as skinny, bland, and heavy as a package of defrosted fish sticks. But while the kakuni pork belly wasn't braised long enough to give it the lush, silky texture the dish demands, it was sweet and tender overall, and the wakame seaweed salad offered a bright, sesame-strewn contrast to the menu's preponderance of starch and salt.
Like the religion itself, Zen doesn't necessarily embrace the concept of vegetarianism, and there are barely enough meat-free dishes on the menu to see the devout through an evening's noshing. Edamame is available to kick off the meal and there are three standard salads in addition to the seaweed-sesame variety, but you can always fill up on the taro/sweet potato fries, which are also served on their own, Belgian-style, in big paper cones.
There's a minimal yet affordable eleven-item wine list as well as five varieties of sake and five kinds of beer (including Yebisu and Sierra Nevada), but the bar's primary function is the shaking up of sake- and soju-based cocktails. Nineteen are on the menu and range from the standard (lemon drop, cosmo, mojito) to the imaginative (the Tropical Paradise, a bracing mango-pineapple-passion-fruit elixir) to the downright intimidating (the Oyster Shooter, aka a glass of sake bolstered with ponzu, tobiko, scallions, a quail egg, and a raw oyster).
After the vivid flavors of the savory dishes, there's an unexpected homogeneity to the desserts that's reminiscent of the stuff served at a hotel banquet. Despite the advertised presence of dark, white, and milk chocolate, the triple chocolate mousse tastes creamier than cacao-y, offering none of the endorphinlike pleasures of the real thing. The fried banana is equally undistinguished, more soggy than crisp, although the accompanying green tea ice cream adds a welcome bit of zest. While the mango soleil cake has a mildly bracing mango-passion-fruit mousse at its center, the dessert overall is as pleasant and forgettable as the others. And if Zen's meal-closers don't inspire you, around the corner and up the street is Tucker's Ice Cream in all its forty-flavor soda-fountain super-creamed glory. What better way to finish off a Chinese-Italian-Japanese-Korean meal than with a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top?
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