Zen Bistro, where have you been all my life? Oh, right...Westchase, which always seemed kind of far to drive from Valrico in spite of the passionate recs by my former coworker and my hairdresser that you MUST be tried. I'm so glad we finally made the trek this afternoon...it wasn't really such a bad drive and it was all SO worth it! Can't wait for your new outpost to open in Westshore so your fabulous offerings are more easily accessible to me.
Zen, indeed...the atmosphere is both contemporary and chillaxing without being sleep-inducing, with flat screens turned down low at the sleek bar. Not the best example of my already decidedly dubious photography skills, but here you go:
I was charmed by the little Japanese rock gardens embedded in the floorboards of the restaurant (covered by acrylic plates). VERY cute place!
Being the gastronomic commitmentphobes that we are, UD and I opted to stick with small plate selections on this trip so we could sample a variety of Zen's offerings. I absolutely loathe it when bad food forces me to be bitchy...so, with a joyous heart, I am thrilled to report that everything we tried was extremely well done (not to mention the fact that we received prompt, friendly, accommodating and professional service from our waitstaff tag-team of Matt and Nikita). Therefore, you should expect nothing but Goodness and Light in this blog post.
First up (and my favorite of the evening) was the Spicy Snow Crab Bowl. The generosity of the snow crab in this $8.95 starter was enough to inspire the initial crush...but the creativity and unique deliciousness of its accompaniments will keep me coming back again and again. Yes, I haz a new addiction. Read on.
The crabmeat overload was presented atop a bed of cool, white rice and garnished with cucumber and Asian pear matchsticks, slices of perfectly ripe avocado and tempura onion...all of which were accented with a creamy sesame sauce. I absolutely adored the sweet and spicy flavor combo as well as the textural contrast of creamy and crunchy in this dish. I could eat it every day!
Next up were the "succulent flame grilled short ribs glazed in a sweet Korean barbecue sauce" (Zen's words, not mine...but a perfectly fitting description, nonetheless). The meat was incredibly flavorful and came easily off the bone, but required just the right level of mastication (that's MASTICATION...get your minds outta the gutter!) to provide optimal flavor enjoyment (at least for those of us who still have our teeth). The sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds added a delightul, nutty accent.
The Dynamite Mussels consisted of three HUGE green mussels baked in garlic sesame sauce with varying toppings. I am usually the "mussels" gurl, but UD trumped me this time by taking two. I don't even know him anymore. Anyway...this plate was beautifully presented just like everything else we tried (something I appreciate since I also eat with my eyes).
Underdog's favorite taste of the evening was the moist and tender grilled pork skewers which were sprinkled with chopped peanuts and served with a sweet, complementary dipping sauce. I have to agree...these were Sofa King good, and my second fave of the meal.
Our last small plate was ordered by my sushi-loving spousal unit, deferring to me as non-raw-seafood-eater. I have tried but failed to forge a relationship with sushi over the years, but (like a bad kisser) it always leaves me cold. The fact that I could actually eat, and kind of enjoy, two pieces of the Mexican sushi is the highest praise I can lavish on anything with the "S" label. This particular application was comprised of tempura fried shrimp, cucumber, masago, rice and sesame sauce.
Desserts were available in both full-sized versions and "shots". Being stuffed to the gills after our Asian tapas feast, we ordered the shot versions of Cosmic Carrot Cake and a creamy Peanut Butter and Chocolate offering with a chocolate cookie crust. They were both huge (more resembling a DQ Peanut Buster Parfait in size than most of the dessert "shots" that I've ever been presented with). If these were the dainty applications, I can't even imagine shoe-horning one of the full-sized versions down my pie hole. Both were really decadent and well-executed, though...especially for the everyday low price of $3.95 apiece. As I always say, "more is more".
All of this, plus three glasses of generously poured wine, set us back about $70 before tip...a bargain by our standards. What a fantastic opportunity to savor a caliber of creative and contemporary Asian fusion cuisine that is not readily found in the Tampa Bay area. Kudos to Zen!