Eating Out: No masking the high quality of both food and Covid care at Zen
55-59 Adelaide Street
028 9023 2244
WITH some restaurants a lot better than others – and far too many frankly a bit useless – at communicating just what they’re doing to give their customers a comfortable, safe, post-lockdown meal out, desperate measures were called for this week.
In an effort to find reports of punters’ recent experiences, ‘Northern Ireland restaurants masks TripAdvisor’ was typed into the Google machine. The problems with reviews on the behemoth travel website are well documented (Google that and you’ll see yourself), with completely fake reviews a constant issue, as well as the general problem, not confined to Tripadvisor, of reasonableness flying out the window under the weight of a keyboard and the ability to click on as many stars as you want.
So, someone who was politely informed that, no, the chef in this vegan restaurant can’t knock you up a hamburger or, sorry, the seven-course tasting menu can’t be adapted so your five-year-old can have chips and ice cream, can whack in one star – 'I’d give it no stars if I could!' – delighted they’ve contributed in some small way to the breakdown of decent society.
If ever you need proof, just Google ‘Northern Ireland restaurants masks Tripadvisor’ and you’ll find a cavalcade of variations on the theme: ‘At least Dick Turpin WORE A MASK!!!!!!’, with the variations mainly the number of exclamation marks. The capital letter usage is pretty consistent.
The usefulness in finding out, for example, which Northern Ireland restaurants’ staff might be wearing masks, is limited.
Maybe ‘visors’ would bring more success. Thankfully it did, in more ways that one.
A review praising Zen’s precautions popped up. And even better, I could ignore what anyone on TripAdvisor was saying about anything else because in all my visits to the Belfast city centre favourite it has never disappointed.
And so, all staff were masked or visored or both, with tables spaced out and divided by screens – not big, ignorant, Perspex numbers, but elegant oriental hangings, fitting in perfectly with the darkly glamorous feel of the place.
Codes are scanned on the phone to both register for contact tracing and gain contactless access to the menu. They’ve thought of everything, and that’s before they bring out plate after plate of some of the most consistently excellent Asian food in Belfast, as they have done since Eddie Fung opened Zen’s doors in 2003.
There’s a heavy Japanese slant, and it’s here, when it comes time to choose, that the shortcomings of having the menu on your phone become apparent. There’s just so much – especially in the sashimi and sushi section – that scrolling up and down just doesn’t do the same job as having the real thing to scan.
So, freshly wiped, one appears, and the challenge, as always with Zen, is knowing when to stop.
Possibly before dessert, with the sweets the weakest of everything – perfectly enjoyable cheesecakes – but still nothing bad, not close. But not what we’re here for.
Once we’ve picked from the huge selection, it turns out dinner has a simplicity about it.
While the monkfish tail with pine nuts in wasabi pepper sauce or the fried sweet omelette and eel sushi rolls bring plenty of pizazz, our choices end up showing off not just the skill of the chefs, but also their restraint and respect for the quality of ingredients.
So there’s mackerel sashimi, not raw but cured just enough to set to an opaque off-white, with the skin still a twinkling silver under the lights.
Simple avocado sushi, rich against dots of chilli sauce and the sweet vinegared rice feels soothing next to soft shell crab inside the crispest of batter, dusted with chilli mixed through puffed rice and little shards of noodle.
There’s a batter masterclass going on, with fish in the seafood tempura – prawns and pearly ling the best of it – just cooked inside a coating that immediately shatters before disappearing. I’m back in the 80s, have just had Space Dust for the first time and am wondering what the hell is going on in my mouth.
Calling the surf and turf, half a plump lobster, clearly spankingly fresh, and pieces of raw inside, charred outside fillet steak, nothing fancy feels almost disrespectful. But nothing fancy’s been done to it, because it doesn’t need it.
Just enough intense heat from the scorching teppanyaki and a few flakes of pepper let everything speak for itself.
Just like Zen. It was always a reassuring place where you knew you’d be treated right. Now, when we need that more than ever it still is.
Five stars? I’d give it six if I could.
Soft shell crab £7
Avocado sushi £5.50
Udon noodles £4.50
Seafood tempura £11.50
Mackerel sashimi £7
Caramel cheesecake £5.95
Flambeed cheesecake £5.60
Surf and turf £25
Pear martini £8.50
Long Island iced tea £8.50
Non-alcoholic pineapple mojito £5.50
Lazy buddha non-alcoholic cocktail £5.50
Service charge £10.01