Zen Asian Contemporary in Uptown

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Editor’s Note: Zen Asian Contemporary is now closed.

Well versed in the Buddha Way,
I go the non-Way
Without abandoning my
Ordinary person’s affairs.
The conditioned and
All are flowers in the sky.
Nameless and formless,
I leave birth-and death.
Also, if I could get another Summit EPA
Before the potstickers arrive,
That’d be great.
Thanks, no real rush on that.

– Adapted from Layman P’ang, Two Zen Classics

It requires a reasonably large sack of gall to name a restaurant “Zen” anything. Zen Buddhism is a perfectly legitimate and established school of spiritual (if not strictly religious) thought and practice, albeit one now applied to stuff as nakedly materialistic as mp3 players, backpacking stoves, automobiles, and — now — an Asian-style restaurant in an upscale Minneapolis neighborhood already choked with the damn things. Purple oval ceiling fixtures and a comfortably empty space in the middle of one’s dining room do not, strictly speaking, denote a direct path to enlightenment.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Questionable name notwithstanding, Zen Asian Contemporary is doing a fine job of feeding physical food to material bodies. An innocuous menu conceals a sharp culinary intelligence that watches over the restaurant’s product — everything ordered seemed to be the product of a single-minded culinary focus that was both admirable and palpable.

A perfectly ordinary grilled chicken salad emerged as a perfectly balanced minor masterwork in the hands of Zen’s kitchen staff. Citrus and tomato acids complemented soulfully charred chicken, greens, and candied walnuts; moreover, the textures were as elegantly and thoughtfully balanced as the tastes. It’s rare that a salad provokes an outright ravenous attack, but Zen pulled it off.

In general terms, tempura beef is a trainwreck waiting to happen. Either the batter coating is overly thick and tastes like a mouthful of damp flour, or the accompanying sauce is as sweet as melted Skittles. Typically both conditions make the dish one of the worst choices on your average Asian fusion menu. But Zen pulls it off. A restrained sesame sauce — not too thick, not at all cloying, and not too much — accompanied tender beef coated with a perfectly crispy and delightfully light tempura coating. An eggroll that tagged along with the lunchtime special did an equally good job of defying traditional pitfalls. The thing was small, delicately crispy, lacking a repulsive sheen of grease, and light, if underpowered on the spice and flavor front.

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

Other dishes suffered a bit from the same thing that bedeviled the eggroll: a crab Napolean appetizer looked dramatic on the plate with its multiple layers of flavor, but tasted principally of cream cheese and avocado, rendering it innocuously edible but not particularly memorable. Steamed potstickers turned out to be a better way to start the meal, as they were delicate and refreshing, not greasy and heavy — a multidimensional sweet / soy / ginger / cilantro dipping sauce provided an extra kick of delight.

A chicken curry was elegantly restrained and pleasant enough, but lacked depth of spice or heat, leaving it mellow but ultimately unengaging — the vegetables could have been crisper and the curry itself more assertive, although Zen earns points by not serving a sauce that was overly sweet. Beef curry fried rice was tender and palatable, but, again, the volume was turned down too low for any individual flavors to be really audible.

Short ribs made up for the mild shortcomings of other entrees — they boasted a solidly charred exterior, pliable texture, and an intriguing hint of musky funk that made them the star of the table.

Amid the jostling crowd of nearby Asian restaurants, Zen Asian Contemporary will need to fight to stand out, and begin taking risks — dialing up flavors, choosing drama over wisdom, and bringing a little more un-Zen flash to the table. That said, the foundation for a great eatery is solidly in place — sound judgment and real care about balanced, mature flavors abound, and a concern for consistency and quality reigns supreme.

Zen Asian Contemporary

Rating: ★★½☆ (Good)

Asian in Uptown Minneapolis
3016 Lyndale Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55408
Sun-Thu 11am-9pm
Fri-Sat 11am-10pm
BAR: Beer and wine

One Comment

  1. Noah

    “Intriguing hint of musky funk” I enjoyed the short ribs right up until I read that, now I’m not so sure.

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