Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Veggie disappointment at Zen Palate

If you haven't figured out already, I'm a vegetarian, but in general I prefer eating at non-vegetarian restaurants. That's not only because it's easier to convince dining companions to come along to restaurants that serve meat, but I can almost always find something I like in "normal" restaurants, and overall I've found the food is better than in all-veggie places. But even so, I'm predisposed to like vegetarian restaurants like Zen Palate because I respect what they do and how difficult it is. I ate at ZP's Union Square location a few times before it closed, and I liked my experience there. So when my friend BD and I were looking for a place to grab dinner on 9th avenue last night, I suggested Zen Palate. He was game for vegetarian food, so why not?

We walked into the restaurant and it was...weird. There's a small, drab front area with a few tables crammed along the edges of the room around the front desk area, as if as an afterthought. The hostess asked if we wanted to sit in the dining room, we said yes, and she said we should walk down the hall. A bit of confusion ensued, but finally we found the hall she was talking about-- a long, dingy hallway that passed the kitchen and the bathroom, terminated in a swinging door, and finally opened up into the "dining room" by the back host's stand. We asked for a table for two and were seated immediately. The back dining room was also pretty depressing-- rather dark, not much decor... nothing great.

The menu: drab color scheme, drab restaurant

As we looked over the menu, the couple at the two-top next to us (our tables were VERY close together) called over the waiter and asked, "Where is the tofu in this dish?" The (very genial and friendly, it must be noted) waiter pointed to a dumpling and explained that THAT was the tofu, that it was seasoned and ground up, etc. etc. The couple was not amused, and, declaring "We'd like to see the menu again; we'll need more protein," promptly ordered another round of food. While they did ultimately like their second go-round, this didn't bode too well for our upcoming meal.

We placed our order and I got up to use the bathroom. By the time I returned about three minutes later, the food had already arrived. Wow. BD had ordered the grilled sesame tofu salad, which came with a large amount of tofu atop a mound of watercress, all accentuated by cherry tomatoes and fried rice noodles. It actually looked really good, but it was problematic to eat-- the pieces of watercress were huge and covered in splash-prone dressing. BD gave up on the chopsticks and asked for a fork and knife, but even with the help of the gauchly non-Asian implements, this wasn't easy eating. Once he got it down, though, BD liked the salad.

Salad, pre-fork & knife

Close-up on tofu

I had had that salad before, so I went with a more unconventional choice, the Kale and seaweed salad. It was, well, exactly what it purported to be: a mound of seaweed atop a mound of kale, with a small handful of silken tofu dices over to the side. There was a small dish of ginger/soy dressing on the side, which provided the only real flavor of the salad; I asked for an extra dish because the paltry amount they provided was not nearly enough for this formidable mound of plant matter. All in all, this salad was exceedingly, almost excruciatingly bland. There was a lot of it for a relatively small price, but that's not always a good thing.


I really want to like Zen Palate. I do. But the 9th avenue location is just so creepily drab, I'd really only use it for take-out, and for me to do take-out the food has to be really top notch. It's not. It was a good value-- each of our salads was only $7.50 for a large amount of food, so I'll give one spatula for that. And I have to give them one spatula just for keeping the vegetarian concept alive (and it IS really difficult to make really good all-veggie food. Difficult, but not impossible). But that's really all I can do. So, Zen Palate, here are your two somewhat dubious Offset Spatulas... do with them what you will.

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