Zen Asian Contemporary

Minneapolis’s newest restaurant is better than it seems

When I am appointed queen of the world, one of my many gracious acts will be to assemble vans of talented branding and marketing professionals who will zoom off to save deserving restaurants from themselves. The first restaurant to be rescued from itself will be Zen Asian Contemporary, a stylish, jewel-toned, contemporarily furnished new spot in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Lyn-Lake, of course, is turning into Minneapolis’s own little Japan Town, as the area is now home to the venerable sushi spot Fuji-Ya, the new sushi spot Tiger Sushi 2, the sake microbrewery Moto-i, and now Zen.

Zen has several Japanese dishes, such as chawan mushi, the classic Japanese steamed-egg custard. Yet the kitchen has no true feel for it. Instead of a gossamer, trembling custard, the chawan mushi at Zen is a sturdy overcooked omelet. The restaurant, unfortunately, serves many dishes it shouldn’t, Japanese and otherwise. Avoid the orange-glazed duck and the stuffed chicken breasts containing ground shrimp and scallops. Both taste like something you’d be served at a wedding, and are as bland as beige blinds.

But don’t write off Zen just yet! Despite those dishes, and despite the maddening name (Why name a restaurant after a school of Buddhism? Isn’t that like opening a restaurant in Japan and naming it Presbyterian American Contemporary?), there is a truly good restaurant in here—if you search hard enough.

It’s a Thai/Vietnamese bistro: Try Zen’s spring lettuce wrap, for instance, and you’ll discover a dish worth writing home about. The lettuce wrap is a generous platter of marinated, grilled, thinly sliced chicken, big frilly young lettuce leaves, and a whole assortment of herbs and vegetables (some pickled), all carefully cut so you can make the neatest possible wraps. The wraps are accompanied by two different dipping sauces: a light, lime-touched peanut froth, and a simple sweet-and-sour rice-wine vinaigrette. Tuck a bit of chicken into a lettuce leaf with a few sprigs of herbs and pickled carrot and dip it into a sauce and you have a light, lively, perfectly balanced, well-considered dish, well-made in every dimension.

The satays feature the same charming sauces, with your choice of chicken, beef, shrimp, or tofu with which to pair them. The Tom Yum soup is excellent, with a flavorful broth, fragrant from being cooked with plenty of lemongrass, galangal, and lime leaves. The beef pho is also very good, with a broth that’s herbal and delicately filigreed with haunting aromas. Order any of these dishes with something from the restaurant’s wine list—like the Veuve Moisans, a lemony, toasty bubbly that pairs perfectly with the spring lettuce wrap—and you’ll have found a close approximation of St. Paul’s wonderful Ngon Bistro.

If bubbly isn’t your bag, the restaurant has one of the smartest wine lists I’ve seen for a Vietnamese corner bistro. Almost everything is under $32, and plenty is under $20. The reds are all good, with plenty of spice, and the whites are lemony and well-perfumed. The unusual honeysuckle-scented Hook and Ladder Gewürztraminer is worth a trip in and of itself—dash in on a quiet Thursday night for a glass and some Tom Yum soup and you’ll be having one of the nicest Asian-restaurant meals in town.

Still, will anyone ever realize that there’s a lovely Thai/Vietnamese restaurant hidden here? I fear not, given the restaurant staff’s tendency to encourage everyone to try old-fashioned French dishes like that dull orange-glazed duck, and this economy doesn’t encourage second chances. So, in case I am not appointed queen of the world, and you happen to have a van full of marketing people looking for a worthy cause, here’s a new little restaurant that needs a helping hand.

Zen Asian Contemporary
3016 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.

Open 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday, Sunday; 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Mondays.