When I walked through the door of the new Zen on Ten Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar (1000 Northside Drive at Tenth Street, 404-879-0999), I was – to my surprise – immediately greeted by the owner and introduced to the bartender as his "best customer."
That was a bit of hyperbole but it's true that I have eaten regularly at Tom Phing's original restaurant, the King & I at Ansley Square, for most of the 30-plus years it has been open. It was among the first Thai restaurants in Atlanta, opening long before the cuisine became the city's favorite ethnic food.
I have many bittersweet memories of the King & I. It was the place I frequently went with friends after the countless funerals we attended in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. In fact, I dined there every week for several years with three friends, all of whom ended up dying themselves. But my memories aren't all painful. I attended as many birthday dinners there, too, including one of my own, after which the police detained me. Long story.
Zen on Ten is Phing's most ambitious project yet. He opened (now defunct) Pad Thai in Virginia-Highland some years back and was involved with his brother in establishing Mali on Amsterdam. Phing confided to me that part of his motivation in opening Zen is his fear that Ansley Square won't be around much longer. He said all leases there have a six-month cancellation clause.
Zen replicates much of the King & I's menu, but adds Japanese dishes, mainly as small plates and sushi. The restaurant also adds a full bar and a much more engaging décor than the bare-bones look of the King & I. I've had three meals at Zen and it rates about the same as its predecessor. The food is competently prepared, tastes fresh and is authentic in most ways. Purists will argue that it's not hot enough – no matter how hot you ask it to be made. My only complaint is the ubiquity of broccoli, nature's most dubious bounty.
So far, my favorite dish has come from the Japanese side of the menu – Hamachi Serrano, featuring six pieces of yellowtail topped with slices of serrano chilies. (I balked momentarily, picturing serrano ham draped over fish.) The dish was served over a yuzu-soy sauce with some olive oil and (allegedly) parsley puree. It was topped with a usual garnish of tangled julienned carrot, an effect that is visually nice but never very satisfying flavor-wise. Still, the slight sweetness of the yuzu, the mild saltiness of the diluted soy, the little flash of fire in the chilies and the mild flavor of the fish add up to a quite stimulated palate.
I also ordered a "shrimp extreme roll" that combined shrimp tempura and avocado. The menu said it would be topped with more shrimp, but it came bare except for being anointed in a pink sauce that turned out to be a combination of Japanese mayo and Sriracha sauce. You might want to go light on the wasabi if you choose to dunk this roll in soy sauce, because it's quite piquant on its own.
Wayne found the most economical way to get a sampling of nigiri sushi and sashimi was to order an appetizer plate of each. There was nothing especially exotic on the plates – the usual albacore, red surf clam, salmon, white sea bass, etc. – but everything was sparkling-fresh in taste and texture.
Zen has organized its stir-fries and curries in the same way Spoon has. You pick one of the classic sauces and add your choice of veggies, tofu, chicken, beef, shrimp or mixed seafood. I ordered the green curry, my favorite at the King & I, with tofu. In all honesty, it did not measure up. Although it tasted good, the sauce was on the watery side. You'll definitely want to use plenty of rice to soak some of it up. The tofu was a bit soft for my taste.
Also like Spoon, Zen offers soft shell crabs and roasted duck, but the menu overall is much larger.
I've tried two desserts at Zen – a crème brûlée made with Thai coffee, and a cube of chocolate mousse. Go for the former, especially if you're feeling full. The latter is exceedingly rich and feeds two easily.
Nostalgia took me back to the King & I last week, too. There, I ordered the regular specialty dish of roasted duck in Panang curry sauce. It was lusciously fatty and fiery. And I do mean fiery. It was served in a brass bowl over a lit container of something like Sterno. The curry was boiling in the bowl to a disconcerting degree. I tried to blow out the fire but couldn't. Finally, it burned itself out. Nothing was overcooked besides my nerves.
The much anticipated Sauced (753 Edgewood Ave., 404-688-6554) opened Dec. 28, and we were there the next day. The charming restaurant is the work of Ria Pell, who also owns Ria's Bluebird, a popular breakfast and lunch spot in Grant Park.
The look is like your mother's (or grandmother's) den in the late '50s or early '60s. There's paneling decorated with taxidermy, for example. Circular banquettes created a cozy feeling. It works, I promise.
I'll write a "First Look" in a few weeks. The food was mainly good and some of it was quite novel – such as a take on beef Wellington with pastry wrapped around Guinness-braised short ribs.
The place was full, with a brief wait, when we arrived. Our flustered but personable server told us that he hadn't waited tables in 12 years and that we were only his sixth table since the opening. He did a great job. ...
By the way, I'm running into more and more overeducated or otherwise underemployed servers. I'm also hearing some distressing stories about some restaurants taking a higher percentage of the servers' tips. That's not nice!
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