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Paris review: Zen Garden

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Paris review: Zen Garden

Moshulu | Feb 3, 2006 04:06 PM

Normally, when reviewing a restaurant, I stick to the basic template: neighbourhood/décor/food/wine/service/price. This presents a bit of a problem when writing about the Zen Garden, where the food is very good but not much else is. Even the name of the establishment is dubious (would anyone name a restaurant “Lutheran Garden”?). But please bear with me.

Zen Garden
15 rue Marbeuf, 8th arrondissement
tel. 01 53 23 82 82

We are in the very center of the city, in the bermudian triangle defined by the avenues George V, Champs-Elysées, and Montaigne. This is the realm of ultra-luxury hotels and the great fashion houses: Ricci, Courrèges, Chanel, and others. A world of see-through narcissism, bottomless vacuity and topless arrogance. Then there is the rue Marbeuf with its loathsome Fermette – a historic Art Nouveau restaurant that somehow manages to be indescribably ugly. Right next to our destination is that icon of Parisian mediocrity, Relais Entrecote, and a perpetual line of suckers waiting to get in. Nor do things improve much when walking through the door of Zen Garden, which looks like the warehouse annex of a high-end antiques dealer. Now I know as much about Asian art as I do about haute couture (that is to say, not very much) but I have been to some Zen temples, and they don’t look like this, nor, as far as I recall, do they have piped-in new age muzak.

In addition to regular restaurant furnishings, there are some odd arrangements of padded easy chairs and tables that would be suited to lounging with a cigar and a snifter of fine aged rum, but don’t do much for the spinal cord when trying to eat a regular meal.

The menus don’t give too many clues about the dishes, except that the overall concept is an unlikely combination of Chinese and Japanese. There is one menu in English and another in French. Both are incomprehensible and ungrammatical, full of zenish gobbledy-gook. The ingredients appear to be listed in random order, in strange and unworkable combinations.

So here we are: baffled, uncomfortably seated in an unattractive room, in an objectionable part of the city. But then comes the food – and transfiguration. We suddenly feel and comprehend that there is a timeless transcendent Power (in the kitchen, presumably) that can do anything, that cares about our well-being, that understands all and forgives all. This Power knows the Way of Vegetables, the Way of Tofu, the Way of Spices, and various other Ways. There are dumplings of all kinds, some steamed, others fried. Fillings are of shrimp, crab, scallops. There is chicken and duck as well, everything subtly spiced (with green tea, for example). There are many vegetarian dishes, never overcooked, never greasy. That much-abused delicacy – tofu – is perfectly prepared here.

Desserts are exquisite. I especially like the extraordinary ice creams and sorbets in such flavors as curry, sechuan pepper, litchi, rose petal.

There is a wine list, but I can’t say much about it since it would be ridiculous to drink wine here.

The price is reasonable, about 35 euros per person (sans wine).

Let’s sum up. Asian food in Paris has a terrible reputation. In recent years, it has taken an extra beating with the proliferation of dozens of rot-gut Chinese traiteurs that have settled all over the city like flies on a “déjection de chien”. So I highly recommend this restaurant to anyone who is interested in imaginative, high-concept Asian cuisine. Zen Garden should also appeal to vegetarians who are sick of the settling for a wretched “assiette de legumes”.

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