When a lengthy shopping spree at International Mall ignites a severe stomach growl, there is usually one dining destination on my mind. Zen Bistro, an upscale and trendy diverse Asian and sushi hot spot, dishes out fresh rolls and bowls that shoppers simply cannot get anywhere else. Tucked away in a corner of Bay Street, this stylish food and drink lounge sets itself apart the second one walks toward its polished wood covered exterior. A streamlined setting with colors of mostly stark white and red with accents of bamboo, the restaurant’s cool, calm and collective interior atmosphere is fantastically modern.
The last two times I have dined at Zen, I have been delighted with my excellent menu selections and content with the friendly, knowledgeable service. Seated immediately, both times with the tall, dark and handsome server, my eyes have lit up and my mouth has begun to water the second I scroll through the menu. A new-age, innovative sushi connoisseur and a fan of Asian fusion, I've discovered that Zen Bistro has some of the most creative concoctions in town.
Because I am an indecisive food lover to the point of annoyance, menu selections take a bit long. A beverage is a much easier choice and with fun and inventive drinks at Zen Bistro, there is a little something for everyone. On this particular hot and sunny day, a cool Pineapple and Jalapeno cocktail made with Tito’s handmade vodka screamed my name. With my mouth made of steel, I could’ve handled far more jalapeño infusion but this refreshing drink is shaken to please even the spicy fearing kind of guests.
Seated for a very late lunch, right at 4PM, Happy Hour specials were officially underway which meant a selection of $6 cocktails, $5 starters and $6 sushi rolls. The Tiger Roll was listed on the HH menu and was too tempting to miss. A 7-piece roll filled with tempura shrimp, crab, cucumber, cream cheese, and avocado and then topped with Ebi shrimp, tempura chips and atomic aioli, it was pleasingly rich and fun with its varying textures. Due to the heaviness of tempura, cream cheese and aioli, the insanely delicious Tiger Roll was a decadent treat perfect to share as a starter.
My beau hadn’t fulfilled his sushi fix for the day so he went on to order the “Sixth Sense”- a roll made with spicy tuna, avocado, tempura onion, wrapped in rice paper and topped with spicy tuna and beat tobiko. Tasty and generous with loads of fresh tuna, this sushi roll was indeed divine. Lacking in exciting contrasting textures, we were unable to experience the same love affair we had with the Tiger Roll.
With eyes bigger than my stomach, I made the mistake of ordering an entrée. Served with a choice of Miso soup or Ginger salad, I was in food regret when the Zen Noodle bowl arrived. A mish-mosh of Thai and Vietnamese ingredients, this bowl was filled with flame broiled lemongrass marinated chicken breast, romaine, cilantro, Thai basil, mint, cucumbers, pickled carrots, daikon and rice noodles. As I am allergic to most nuts, I nixed the peanut garnish but accepted the sweet and savory Vietnamese dipping sauce. Not too bland, the fresh mixture wasn’t too flavorful either. The Thai Basil was nonexistent and the lemongrass marinade on the chicken was rather mild. However, with all of the veggies crisp and the chicken grilled flawlessly moist and tender, my complaints are minimal.
I can’t help but mention my visit to Zen Bistro just a couple of weeks prior when we arrived in time for the lunch menu. I had indulged in sushi the night before so the Tuna Lime bowl and Spicy Snow Crab bowl sounded superb. As a crab aficionado, I ordered the Spicy Snow Crab bowl. Presented beautifully with colorful ingredients creating food art, I was stoked to dig into the fun flavor combination of “crab,” cucumber, Asian pear, avocado, and tempura onion served over rice and topped with a creamy sesame sauce and masago. Yet, something looked suspicious the second I saw the dish. I ignored my suspicion. The creation was so yummy, that it took a few bites for me to…gasp. The “fresh snow crab," was imitation crab. Normally I’d be livid, as our server should have been informed that the kitchen was out of snow crab and substituting it with “krab”. However, once I took a few more bites, I found that this dish was executed so well, I almost (for once) didn’t mind imitation crab. If I was to order this again though, I’d be sure to specify the crab used. Some of the menu descriptions specifically list “imitation crab” whereas others list “fresh crab” or “snow crab.” Hmmm…
My beau ordered the Tuna and Lime bowl. It was outstanding. Cubed tuna with a chili lime sauce served over rice with cilantro, ginger, scallions, Vietnamese mint, cucumber, crispy shallots and peanuts, this bowl was again, a piece of art, resisting the destructive pierce of a fork. The tanginess of the lime sauce, coolness and crunch from the cucumber, freshness from the mint and the smooth decadence of the tuna created an exceptional dish.
Friendly service, fantastic food and a neat ambiance make Zen Bistro my favorite place to wine and dine at International Mall's Bay Street. With Happy hours daily, a Wednesday Ladies Night, Hospitality night, and random other special hours wherever they see fit, there is never a bad time to check out this swanky and scrumptious eatery. Although I’ve never visited after dark, word has it they have quite the late night party scene too.