Sunday, February 24, 2013

[Review] Zen, Rathmines, Dublin 6

When I start to write a review, I like to spend some time doing research. I look up the location's website, as well as reading any press reviews that I can locate. It's good to build up a picture of the location, which I can then draw on as I write up my own thoughts. This proved to be a bit of a challenge when it came to Zen Restaurant. Despite being in operation for over 20 years, it's quietly low-key and I found it hard to located older reviews.

Zen is located in an old church hall on Upper Rathmines Road, but this isn't really apparent from the outside. It's only when you step inside the main dining room that you feel the sense of space and reverence (pretty much standard issue in church buildings). A large golden disc is suspended on the main wall, reflecting gentle light over the plush red velvet seats. A backlit bar and softly-flaming fireplace add to the sense of warmth and comfort. 
The interior of Zen Chinese restaurant
Zen is a Sichuan restaurant, which is an important distinction to make. China is a very large country, divided into over 30 administrative regions, each of which has its own unique culture and cuisine. Sichuan cuisine can be characterised as being fresh, hot, spicy and fragrant drawing on flavours such as the Sichuan peppercorn, peanut and ginger. (If you want to read more about the magnificent cuisine of Sichuan, I'd thoroughly recommend picking up a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper.) 

We were dining at Zen to celebrate the Chinese New Year, 2013being the Year of the Snake. Our plan was to enjoy the special celebratory menu, created by head chef Mr Shucheng Yu, priced at a very attractive €25 per head. As the lighting in the restaurant was low, I don't have good photos of the food, so here's the menu instead.

Pickled broccoli and mooli
Sweet and sour ribs
Braised trout with black bean
Chicken and peanut salad
***
Meat sung
***
Aubergine with marinated ground pork, ginger, garlic and pickled chilies
Braised whole bream in chili bean sauce
Lamb with ginger and scallion

To start, we received four little tasting bowls, each dish containing a different taste and texture. The braised trout stood out as the delicate fish was contrasted beautifully with salty bean. The pickled mooli was tangy and crunchy. Delicious meat sung came preassembled in lettuce leaf boats, standing proud on the plate.  Our three main dishes proved to be a feast. The whole bream was perfectly cooked and the flesh came away easily from the bone, even with chopsticks. As always, himself went straight for the cheek flesh before turning his attention to the main body. The aubergine and pork came in a slightly spicy, rich sauce with the aubergines literally melting in the mouth.

The set menu was excellent value for money, but there's also a wide selection of a la carte and even daily specials. Dishes like Pang Pang chicken (shreds of cold chicken breast in a spicy sauce) or stewed spicy fillet of beef with Chinese cabbage sound wonderful, though I'd draw the line at shredded lamb with celery. The devil vegetable has no place in civilised dining. I wouldn't even feed it to my dwarf hamsters!

Zen is bit of a hidden treasure. It's clearly got a strong customer base who know all about it, but don't shout about it. I knew about it but didn't realise until recently that it was a Sichuan restaurant, which is one of my favourite cuisines. On recent visits to Zen, I've been spitting out Sichuan peppercorns like a Gatling gun, which is high praise in my book, as too few Chinese restaurants in Ireland make use of this wonderful spice. But despite the use of Sichuan peppercorn, it's a bit funny that my only real complaint about Zen is that the food could be spicier.

Zen Restaurant, 89 Rathmines Road Upper, Dublin 6
Tel: +353 (0)1 497 9428
URL: www.zenrestaurant.ie

Zen Chinese on Urbanspoon

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