Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zen Chinese Bistro: Portland's Best Chinese

We've waited a long time in Portland (and surrounding area) for not even great Chinese, but DECENT Chinese. When I first learned they were opening, I was disappointed to see the menu was, essentially the same American/Chinese food offered at every other Chinese eatery. My disappointment turned to joy upon realizing that though the dishes shared the same names, the versions of these dishes at Zen were head and shoulders above anything I've had anywhere else in Maine since the departure of the now-defunct "Stir Crazy" (great food, strange atmosphere, unfortunate name).

Typically when I want good Chinese I resort to going to Chinatown in Boston. No need for that any more.

I've had a number of dishes and haven't been disappointed by anything. To the contrary, almost every bite puts a smile on my mug. As opposed to the "dirty diaper" smell of most, Zen's hot and sour soup was not afraid to be either and delivered plenty of flavor.

The pan fried dumplings are a tad smaller in size than usual, but delicious and comprised of a decent pork mixture and far less unwieldy than the over-chewy, glutinous mass one expects elsewhere, fragrant with hints of ginger.

General Tso and Orange Chicken here are not the Maine standard of leaden, lumpy balls of dough , but rather gently battered, FRESH (you can tell) chicken appropriately seasoned and cooked perfectly to allow them to burst with flavor more fruit and/or pepper based than the sugary, jellied mess one gets from (insert almost any Chinese restaurant in Portland here).

Noodle lovers (such as I) will love Zen's noodle dishes be it one of several Lo Meins, Udon, Buckwheat or Rice noodles. Zen's aren't altogether different than what one would imagine, but once again, care, attention to detail and the freshest ingredients make all the difference in a standard like Beef Lo Mein a standout or a standby.

Peking Duck can be ordered right off the menu, no "24 hours in advance" notice and they do the duck just right. It arrives de-boned, beautifully sliced, skin as crisp as lardons artfully arranged over the top, the accompanying julianned cucumber and scallion, pancakes and plum sauce all joining to make the tastiest damned duck burrito north of Boston.

Although there is no separate menu, vegetarians fare well here with a few outstanding dishes. A dear vegetarian friend recently joined me for lunch and couldn't stop raving (or finish the enormous portion) of a dish of (unimaginatively named) "Vegetarian Delight." The vegetables were cooked and sauced to perfection, and the portion was large enough that I shared part of it and there was still plenty to take home for a nice late night snack.

Lunch is very special at Zen, with prices ranging from only 8 dollars (vegetarian) to 12 dollars (a duck salad with organic greens). The entree portion of the lounch is nearly sharing size, (almost too much). and comes with a (beautifully crisped) fried vegetarian spring roll, your choice of rice (brown, white or fried) and choice of soup. For around ten dollars it's not only delicious, but one of the best bangs for your buck in Portland.

The service is excellent . . . you meet almost everyone upon walking into the beautiful bar/casual dining area (and what a bar!). The bar is beautiful, and has a more than decent array of high quality spirits and a drink list full of those flavorful libations one expects from trendier "Polynesian" style eateries. With its dramatic dark woods, deep reds and (rare in Maine) open two level dining room, the atmosphere at Zen feels more Manhattan than Maine. Nice touches all, but the real reason to come (and stay) at Zen is the food. For Chinese, nothing in Portland comes close.