Sunday, September 21, 2014

Zen Forrest, New Port Richey, FL

Zen Forrest is a...get this..."zen-like" little eatery tucked away in a Pasco County strip mall.  The walls are painted a soothing sage green, decor is minimalistic and tables are nicely spaced.  Dragons, gilt, kimonos and piped in muzak are noticeably absent.  Ambient art is subdued and tasteful.  Even when full of patrons, the vibe is soothing, conversing is easy and there's an air of intimacy.  Not your stereotypical Chinese restaurant, the menu is more "Asian influenced" with noticeable nods to the cuisine of Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam.

We received knowledgeable and courteous service from Kassie, who was was pleasingly low-key and paced our meal nicely (our party of four spent a leisurely hour and forty-five minutes visiting and noshing without ever feeling either neglected or rushed).

The Crab Rangoon was a real crowd-pleaser and definitely a cut above average.  For starters, it actually tasted like crab (not "krab") and had a garlicky kick that set it apart from its typical Chinese resto contemporaries.  The spicy mango dipping sauce was the perfect accompaniment for these crispy pockets of decadence, which were so delightful that I toyed with the idea of ordering a second batch.

Zen Forrest Rolls (minced chicken with veggies in an egg roll shell) were a deviation from the norm in the best of all possible ways.  Richer, denser, and more savory than traditional egg rolls, they were served hot and crispy with spicy lemon mustard sauce.

The simple house salads that prefaced the meal were fresh, crunchy and dressed in a pungent, garlic vinaigrette which is sold by the bottle in-house (and, after tasting, I can understand the demand).  If you're on a first date, however, it might be best to steer clear as it is as potent as it is addictive.  I fear it will be emanating from my pores for days to come.

My lemongrass-seasoned shrimp with aromatic, sweet-meets-savory Coconut Curry sauce was a winning entree. Ordered at a "medium" heat level, it left a nice sheen of sweat on my upper lip without being overpowering and I appreciated the liberal infusion of fresh veggies, incendiary peppers and cilantro.  The use of larger shrimp would've made it exceptional.

Baby Bro's Tangy Orange Zested Chicken was the best I've tasted this side of Chinatown in Philly. The breast meat was moist and juicy, fried to perfection and slathered in a nasal-passage-opening, intense citrus sauce.  Wasabi mashed potatoes were fluffy and pungent while still retaining a desirable, homemade lump factor.

UD opted for Beef Negamaki (teriyaki soaked steak with fresh scallions rolled inside, sizzled on the grill, topped off with an onion teriyaki sauce), which truly delivered and could've fed a small army. The tender beef roulades were "like buttah" and yielded easily to the slightest touch of fork pressure.  I think my resident knuckle-dragger would've appreciated a rarer/bloodier variation, but that didn't stop him from falling upon the bovine flesh like he had a sunrise engagement with Old Sparky.  Sadly, my photo doesn't do justice to the dish.

Kim's Shrimp and Thai Basil didn't seem to appeal to anyone other than herself.  The taste I sampled failed to thrill and its visual element brought to mind a red-headed step-child in comparison to the rest of pulchritudinous plates at our table.  Perhaps its dark, heavy sauce just wasn't my cup of tea.

Asian restaurants are not generally renowned for the decadence factor of their desserts and I don't think Zen Forrest is much of an exception, although their offerings are more taste bud-tingling than green tea ice cream, gao and fortune cookies (I want fried bread pudding with ice cream and whiskey sauce, damnit!).  We sampled Blueberry Cake and Apple Spice Cake. Both were quite light and flavorful, but the blueberry version with its tender texture and silken layers of berry-infused, mousse-like cream filling was everyone's favorite.

The "also-ran":

Final word:  I like Zen Forrest. Would I again drive 1.5 hours for more?  Probably not.  Nonetheless, better-than-average restaurant cuisine identified anywhere north of the Pinellas and Hillsborough county lines is always noteworthy.  In addition to thoughtful, quality menu offerings, a respectable list of reasonably priced wines and craft beers are also available.  In fact, I identified a new crush in the form of butterscotch-like Cannonball Chardonnay on this visit at the almost obscenely low price of $6.50 per glass.  It's worth a visit for denizens of North Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Zen Forrest on Urbanspoon

My blog entries contain the unmitigated, and sometimes unforgiving, dining truths and perceptions I experience as an ordinary restaurant patron. Every meal I post about has been fully paid for by one of the participating members of my personal dining party. I do not engage in the gratis blogger freebie dining events I'm constantly invited to attend and never will. If I ooze font-like love for a restaurant in my blog, it's because they totally earned it…not because they gave me free food or knew I was going to share the experience on the internet.

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