Food & Drink: The zen of comfort food

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January 16, 2012
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar
Get this straight: no sushi. Zen Box, downtown’s newest Japanese restaurant, forgoes the food hipsters’ status symbol in favor of the lunch-counter comfort foods of Nippon. A big obrigato — thank you — for that, and a compelling reason to sign a lease in the Mill District City Apartments it anchors. But that’s not to say the short-order pub doesn’t attract its share of glam gourmets: The chopstick-wielding table of eight nearby looked like expats from Tokyo Vogue.

Yet a four-top sported a family of blond daughters, because what kid doesn’t love slurping noodles? Or the dumplings that began our meal: age gyoza (we chose the succulent veggie filling) boiled, then sent for a crisp-up in the skillet, ready to sluice through Zen’s “kamikaze” sauce — well, kamikaze for a Swedish palate, maybe — a modest blend of soy sauce, garlic and chili.

The extensive menu is composed of small plates meant for sharing (bargains, all, at $5–$10), organized by cooking style rather than apps and entrees: thus, frying, grilling, chilling — as in salads such as tuna poke, tofu, seaweed, soba noodles. Some represent familiar fare to folks frequenting Japanese kitchens, others are unique locally to Zen Box. And all, as far as I can tell, are winners.

We shared a bowl of beef brisket in two-bite slices, braised until perfectly balanced between tender and chewy, mingling with tendrils of tripe soaking up the easygoing flavor of red miso-enriched broth. White miso sauce, pleasantly sweet, drove the addictive essence of the spare rib plate — sesame-sprinkled, modestly meaty cross-sections of bone, rather than lengths, served with a haystack of juicy daikon threads.

Oh, what next? Crisp-skinned chicken thighs with the kitchen’s own sea-salt blend? Panko-crusted oysters with housemade tartar sauce? How about the tempura-style avocado — or, hey, the shrimp version — served with spicy mayo? The chilled silky tofu with ginger, soy and scallions that looked so good at the next table?

Next time, next time. … For now, a whopping tureen of ramen to share. The robust, soul-warming beef broth — better than Valium for what stresses you—hosted generous mounds of fresh egg noodles supporting bits of fatty (read: tasty) pork belly, bamboo shoots and halves of soft-boiled egg, its golden yolk still close to mobile. Luscious!  

For dessert, there’s green tea or mango ice cream, solo or in a 1919 root beer float. Or — better option — the savory finishes: onigiri — rice balls pocked with fishy bonito flakes, soy and pickled plums; ochazuke — a traditional finale of rice in green-tea broth with toppings such as toasted seaweed or pickled plums; or our pick, kani zosui— “Japanese-style risotto,” according to the menu: fair enough.
Get this straight: no sushi. Zen Box, downtown’s newest Japanese restaurant, forgoes the food hipsters’ status symbol in favor of the lunch-counter comfort foods of Nippon. A big obrigato — thank you — for that, and a compelling reason to sign a lease in the Mill District City Apartments it anchors. But that’s not to say the short-order pub doesn’t attract its share of glam gourmets: The chopstick-wielding table of eight nearby looked like expats from Tokyo Vogue.

Yet a four-top sported a family of blond daughters, because what kid doesn’t love slurping noodles? Or the dumplings that began our meal: age gyoza (we chose the succulent veggie filling) boiled, then sent for a crisp-up in the skillet, ready to sluice through Zen’s “kamikaze” sauce — well, kamikaze for a Swedish palate, maybe — a modest blend of soy sauce, garlic and chili.

The extensive menu is composed of small plates meant for sharing (bargains, all, at $5–$10), organized by cooking style rather than apps and entrees: thus, frying, grilling, chilling — as in salads such as tuna poke, tofu, seaweed, soba noodles. Some represent familiar fare to folks frequenting Japanese kitchens, others are unique locally to Zen Box. And all, as far as I can tell, are winners.

We shared a bowl of beef brisket in two-bite slices, braised until perfectly balanced between tender and chewy, mingling with tendrils of tripe soaking up the easygoing flavor of red miso-enriched broth. White miso sauce, pleasantly sweet, drove the addictive essence of the spare rib plate — sesame-sprinkled, modestly meaty cross-sections of bone, rather than lengths, served with a haystack of juicy daikon threads.

Oh, what next? Crisp-skinned chicken thighs with the kitchen’s own sea-salt blend? Panko-crusted oysters with housemade tartar sauce? How about the tempura-style avocado — or, hey, the shrimp version — served with spicy mayo? The chilled silky tofu with ginger, soy and scallions that looked so good at the next table?

Next time, next time. … For now, a whopping tureen of ramen to share. The robust, soul-warming beef broth — better than Valium for what stresses you—hosted generous mounds of fresh egg noodles supporting bits of fatty (read: tasty) pork belly, bamboo shoots and halves of soft-boiled egg, its golden yolk still close to mobile. Luscious!  

For dessert, there’s green tea or mango ice cream, solo or in a 1919 root beer float. Or — better option — the savory finishes: onigiri — rice balls pocked with fishy bonito flakes, soy and pickled plums; ochazuke — a traditional finale of rice in green-tea broth with toppings such as toasted seaweed or pickled plums; or our pick, kani zosui— “Japanese-style risotto,” according to the menu: fair enough.

FYI
Zen Box
602 Washington Ave. S.
612-3ZEN
zenboxizakaya.com