Boy, there sure is a lot of hype out there for the “Asian fusion” spot in Schenectady, Zen, at 469 State (basically across from Proctors).
It’s been open now for about a year and we finally made our way there on a recent weekend night to give it a shot. I mean, c’mon…THE HYPE! We didn’t make reservations, which seems to be a mistake, but they fit us in within probably 10-15 minutes. No biggie. There were a couple of larger parties along with groups of 2-4 or so.
It is a pretty nice looking place. Very sort of upscale Asian, everyone pretty much knows what that looks like. I sort of liked the strings of large paper lantern things along the windows, some of which lit up.
Service was really good all around, I will definitely give them that. Also, most people looked like they were having a blast. It’s a fun place to have a leisurely dinner with friends, it appears. There’s also a large bar and the flowing libations probably help with the genial atmosphere. Price-wise, it’s not cheap, but not really expensive such that a fun group outing doesn’t end with a buzzkill when the check comes.
We were there more for the food, though. And, really, that’s where their problems lie. I’d write a fancy schmancy review (Wait. Would I?), but this guy already summed it up exactly as I would, so it seems like nothing has changed in the past 6 months or so:
“There are a number of flashy drinks on the bar menu; it seems like they’re going more for the happy hour vibe than serious dining. That said, this place is a formidable spot for gathering with a bunch of friends, splitting some appetizers, and having some drinks.”
Everything LOOKS fantastic, very well presented. It’s just that everything is just sort of bland or m’eh. Nothing really jumped out as BAD, I just think for the price it should actually be GOOD.
A lot of entrees come with either a salad or miso soup. I had the soup and found it uninteresting. And salty. But I expect miso soup to be salty. There were fun little teeny cubes of tofu in it as well as what I think were mushrooms with a really strong flavor that leaned towards offputting, but I’m not a big mushroom person, so take that with a grain of salt (sorry). I had maybe 1/3 of it, I had ordered an appetizer, too, in order to sample more items, so filling up on soup that I didn’t really want wasn’t on the agenda. The salad looked a bit ridiculous. If you’re of a certain age you maybe used to get a little iceberg lettuce ‘salad’ with the better school ‘hot lunch’ items, like pizza. Some scraps of iceberg lettuce, a grape tomato, some red onion or whatever with some sort of vague dressing, probably something with some ginger. I’d get that over the soup, though (I’m not really big into soup but have had tasty miso before, so thought I’d give it a shot).
I tried the gyoza, “pan seared pork dumplings” as an appetizer. I don’t usually get appetizers, but I was really hungry and I figured if I didn’t like either that or the entrée at least hopefully I’d get filled up. I want to say there were 6 of them, not big, not small, 2-bite sized. The texture was nice and they were hot. The flavor varied widely across them, indicating a mostly-mixed filling and local preparation. Mass-produced, frozen/reheated dumplings would never be so different tasting from one to the next. The dipping sauce (soy sauce-based?) was cold – I don’t know why I’m always surprised when dipping sauces at Asian restaurants are ice cold for hot food, but I am. And I still don’t get it. Sorry. It added a little flavor to the mostly flavorless dumplings. The last 2 were pretty good, I think they had more pork or something instead of some greens, or maybe just more salt. Overall, it was a lot more salt in the belly, though.
For the entrée, I was really looking forward to the Zen’s Beef Short Ribs ($16) – “Marinated tender short ribs in fruity tangy flavored sauce”. C’mon, short ribs are awesome. Fruity tangy sauce? Sign me up. A reasonable portion of them came with the aforementioned soup and a generous scoop of nice sticky rice (you can choose white or brown – both were really well cooked, fresh, and nice and sticky). Sadly, the short ribs themselves, bone included, were hard to eat and not that tasty. If I was at home I’d have given up and picked these up by the bone and nibbled the meat off from around them. Instead, I had to try to cut the meat off them, without having them go flying off my plate, in little bits at a time. It was really awkward and just sort of made me madder and madder as I ate. Not like boiling mad, just mad like, ‘Why are they prepared this way? This is so dumb. I’m glad that I’m almost done.’
As for flavor, well, a more factual representation would be “Teriyaki marinated chewy short ribs in teriyaki sauce with an occasional bit of orange zest.” The meat was not tender, it took some chewing, especially the closer to the bone you got. I gave up trying to get much of the meat off the bone because it just wasn’t worth the payoff. Fortunately the rice helped cover up some of the super saltiness of the teriyaki slathered meat. I distinctly recall two bites where I got a blast of orange flavor that had to have been a bit of zest – I couldn’t see it since it was all a brown slurry over the ribs, but the taste jumped out at me. Those bites were pretty interesting and made me wish that these really did have a “fruity tangy flavored sauce” – which, of course, is what I thought I had ordered.
Did I mention everything was really salty?
The other entrée was an unspectacular, but again, not BAD chicken dish with some veggies. Just, you know, whatever.
88% at Urbanspoon.
4.0 stars at Yelp. Wide range of reviews, but oddly even some of the bad reviews have high ratings. Presumably because they had a good time despite the ‘tasteless’ food, waits of ‘forever’ for food, terrible service, etc.
80% recommended, 4+ stars at Tripadvisor.
The Gazette reviewed it in February…well, mostly just described it and the menu. They seemed to like the short ribs…or at least liked that they weren’t fatty. The duck didn’t get rave reviews.
I dunno. I guess we’re not hip enough for this joint. Well, OK, there’s no way in hell we’re hip enough for just about anywhere that has ever earned a rating of ‘trendy’. I don’t see any reason why we’d go back. However, I would refer you to some of the more positive reviews and menu items that others had more luck with and especially if you just want to get some drinks with friends before a show or something. I think you’ll have more luck.