The perfect evening: a tub of buttered popcorn, a big movie screen, a kickin' sound system, a film you've been dying to see, and then a little movie rehash and debate over dinner in a simple, affordable restaurant. Enter Cafe Zen. If the above scenario doesn't appeal, you may still enjoy the clean and vibrant Chinese food at this small eatery close by the Senator Theatre.
Opened last August in the Belvedere Square area, the cafe is a family affair. The kitchen is presided over by Lily Chang, and the front of the house is tended by her children, Jo and Po. Unlike many Chinese restaurants, the menu's focus is on still-crisp vegetables in simple yet inventive preparations.
This culinary credo is echoed in the decor: A modest, square dining room sports yellow wall murals and spare birch tables, handmade by a member of the Chang family. High ceilings and a minimalist aesthetic give the place a very Zen, contemplative feel (but all this open space can make for some serious noise problems when the Senator's movie-going mob descends).
Soups are uniformly excellent at Cafe Zen. A spicy and piquant hot and sour and a traditional eggdrop, enlivened by the addition of sweet corn, are both praiseworthy, but the mother of all soups is certainly Neptune's Treasure. Enough for several people, a tureen of delicately flavored broth is crowded with plump shrimp, scallops, clams and a load of crunchy vegetables.
Once our soup bowls had been drained dry, our party moved on to several stylish appetizers. We made short work of steamed vegetable dumplings. Six packets of minced veggies wrapped in spinachy green pasta, they were delicious when dunked in soy sauce.
An intriguingly named Ants in the Tree paired mild, finely chopped chicken with crispy rice noodles, wrapped together in crunchy iceberg lettuce leaves. If this all sounds too healthy, by all means try the crab cheese wontons. Pastry triangles filled with cream cheese dotted with crab meat, they were somehow reminiscent of satisfying 1950s cocktail-party chow.
The entree list features several Zen Favorites worth sampling. Gow bah brings a sizzling platter of gingery vegetables and shrimp nestled against a fright wig of puffed rice noodles. Whole fish, served family style, is steamed with fresh ginger and scallions or braised with fresh tofu and black bean sauce.
If you want something to stick to your ribs, try the shredded beef and carrot, deep fried and tossed in a goopy sweet and spicy sauce, or the lemon chicken, breaded, fried and tossed in an equally goopy sweet lemon sauce dotted with maraschino cherries). These dishes balance out nicely with a spare and sophisticated plate of sauteed watercress with garlic.
Desserts bring the requisite fortune cookies, as well as tiny scoops of refreshing lime sherbet. In addition, Cafe Zen offers several decidedly Western dessert options, from individual fruit tarts to chocolate mousse and tiny chocolate caramel pies, all from Sweet Indulgence.
Maybe I'm just a cheap date, but I'll always be satisfied with dinner and a show if it's a double billing of Cafe Zen and the Senator.
438 E. Belvedere Ave.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit Cards: All major
Prices: appetizers $1.25-$5.95; entrees $5.95-$20
Pub Date: 10/03/96