Restaurant Review: Zen Palate

Zen Palate
115 East 18th Street
(between Park Avenue and Irving Place)
Gramercy, Manhattan

663 9th Avenue
(at 46th Street)
Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan

239 West 105th Street
(between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue)
Upper West Side, Manhattan

Vegiboys Rating (2.5/4)

Zen Palate has been a fixture in New York city for a while, founding their original Hell’s Kitchen restaurant in 1991. Though they had branched out during better days with two other locations in Union Square and the Financial District, those outposts closed with the arrival of a harsher economic climate, leaving only the home base in the Theatre District standing.

But the desire for an empire seems to rest strong with Zen Palate, with a new location coming soon to the Upper West Side, and with the return of the restaurant to the neighborhood of Union Square. Already familiar with the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant, Brian and I decided to visit the brand new Gramercy site for a dinner.

The space was previously occupied by the Japanese grill restaurant Butai, and Zen Palate was wise in retaining many of Butai’s sleek decorative elements. The interior makes the restaurant feel expensive and trendy; it’s the sort of place that can make a client or a date feel special by looks alone. The upstairs dining room has tall front windows which open for beautiful natural light and ventilation.

The service was a bit cold, but efficient and helpful; recommended dishes were quickly pointed out on each page of the extensive menu (which was a bit confusing: we received three different menus with the same dishes having varied pricing; the explanation that two were take-out menus made absolutely no sense, but we elected to accept the waiter’s logic without argument).

To drink, Brian was pleased to discover they carried Reed’s Ginger Beer. I ordered a cranberry iced tea (which I now know that I do not enjoy in combination, it tasted a bit like drinking rotten tomatoes). Luckily, the staff always kept the water glasses full. We also both were happy to find our straws to be biodegradable; eco-friendly efforts in the restaurant community always earn respect in our book.

So on to the food: for appetizers, we ordered the autumn rolls. The plating was beautiful; a red wrap surrounded shredded vegetables in a very eye-pleasing arrangement. The rolls were crisp, but had no taste. The accompanying sauce proved vital if the tongue was to enjoy anything at all (the sauce was a bit of a mystery: the color of vodka sauce, but using red wine vinegar as a base with hints of curry and possibly chili pepper).

My entreé of Sizzling Medallions arrived unexpectedly true to its name on a sizzling cast-iron dish. The taste of the seitan medallions were exactly those of Wild Ginger’s General Tsao’s Chicken, but it lacked the depth of Wild Ginger’s dish. The vegetables were an undistinguished afterthought mixed into the medallions’ brown sauce. A bowl of rice was given on the side, presumably to soak up leftover juices from the skillet.

Brian’s Cantonese Fried Noodles also had great presentation, with the meat of the meal appearing over a bird’s nest of crisp fried noodles. The textures on the noodles and rice were great, but the sauce was bland. Not much flavor could be pulled from the dish.

Our dessert was a tofu-based Key Lime Pie. It had an overly soggy filling and a weak flavor; even the crust was mushy. The cream topping was interesting; we weren’t able to discern the source (our guess is a tofu-based concoction as well).

The bill came to $33 each, but despite the great atmosphere, the dishes didn’t justify the price. They do offer a prix fixe, which may be the way to go for value, otherwise better tastes and more food can be found for the same price elsewhere.

Food (2/4)
Atmosphere & Service
Value (2.5/4)

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