Zen Zero

Where: [Zen Zero][1], 811 Massachusetts Street, Downtown. Opened August 14, 2002.Translations and variations on food from Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan.The name is a play on the Italian word zenzero (ginger).Chefs/Owners: Subarna 'Barney' Bhattachan and Alejandro Lule. They met in 1993 while cooking at Teller's, and partnered up on La Parrilla in June of '99. Barney has a strong presence in the restaurant, which seats 100 guests (Alejandro being back at La Parrilla after a five- month opening stint at Zen Zero). He worked the floor that night, while sous-chef Jeremy Sutton directed the kitchen. Our server was Sarah Ballard-Hanson. She was warm, efficient, well-informed and non-obtrusive. She let us linger at the table for over two hours, expertly clearing and resetting, the place never less than half-full of every kind of happy, chatting people. I was immediately reminded of the sultry restaurants of the Mission district in San Francisco; the Slanted Door; casual, clean and breezy places.Who: [Sula Teller][2] and [Billy Pilgrim][3]. Mention Sula's name to food people in Lawrence and they say, "Ah! Sula!", as though they'd just sipped good wine. She's been a vegetarian since the age of 12, and I have the guilty honor of once coercing her to eat [sweetbreads][4]. As a professional cook, she feels compelled to sample everything, even to her extreme distaste--one of the many things I admire about her. Her husband, Billy, a Winfield native, is a designer by trade, a dedicated musician by avocation and a local denizen by reputation. He owns Pilgrim Page, an advertising agency in it's 12th year on Mass. St. He and Sula have made a swaying garden behind their house, and there I've spent some idyllic twilights in their easy company.When: Monday, March 24th, 6.30PM, a warming spring night. The doors were open and the fans turning.What: Dinner for Three. Vegetable Momos, steamed. Tom Kha Gai Vietnamese Spring Roll Salad Nepalese Goat Curry Soba Noodle Stir-fry Panang Curry 4 glasses of wine 2 pints of beer Total, before tip, $54.00.Let's get right to it: Tom Kha Gai. It's in my Top 10 Desert Island Soups, and I never fail to order it on a first visit to a Thai restaurant. Tom Kha Gai is a kitchen song of strangely harmonious contrasts--rich and thin, spicy and sour, tart and creamy--composed of good chicken stock, poached white meat of chicken, lemongrass and lime leaves, ginger and galanga, [naam pla][5] (fish sauce, an absolute necessity in Thai cooking), red chiles, cilantro leaves, lime juice and--to enrich it all--coconut milk. You can't fake Tom Kha Gai; the cook must fully understand the nature and properties of each ingredient in order to pull off the delicate balances of this classic soup. This kitchen knows what they're doing, and they turn out an extremely good Tom Kha Gai, our favorite dish of the night. We had a double order of it and ate from a communal bowl, safe in the knowledge that Tom Kha Gai is also a magical potion, perhaps even a cure for the common cold. The steamed Momos (you can also have them sautéed), were another testament to the kitchen's skill and respect for high tradition: each dumpling, four per order, had exactly 10 pleats. It is an inflexible rule of dumpling preparation in dim sum cooking that there be exactly 10 pleats - anything else is shoddy work. The dumplings were filled with shreds of cabbage, snow peas, ginger, garlic and cilantro leaves, and served with two chutneys: a subtle, rich sesame seed puree, and coarsely-ground roasted tomatoes flecked with char--conceptually a good foil for the dumplings. The Vietnamese Spring Roll Salad, clean and refreshing, was a toss of crisp romaine and field greens, tender poached chicken, grilled shrimp, cabbage, carrots and a perfectly-sharp soy vinaigrette, sprinkled with chopped peanuts and airy tangles of flash-fried rice vermicelli noodles. Clear, distinct tastes with an emphasis on texture.We ordered more drinks. It's great having someone else cook and clean up.We're all in our forties at the table, so it's inevitable that the talk turns to impending death. We discuss creativity as a Fountain of Youth, how neglectful Americans are of their elderly; shuffleboard, gardening; we talk about our work, staffing problems, and let loose a few sentences containing the phrase "these kids today...". It's funny how that happens when you've logged some time."The youth of today are lazy, selfish, without morals and doomed to failure." - Plato.At the risk of being labeled a lover of [strange meats][6], I confess that I'm very partial to [goat][7]; several childhood years in Jamaica put that good taste in my mouth. There was a Nepalese Goat Curry on the nightly specials list, an easy decision. Billy went for the Panang Curry, a Malay-style braise of chicken, coconut milk, lime leaves and basil with broad noodles. Sula had the Japan-tinged [Soba][8] Noodle Stir-fry; subtle buckwheat noodles wokked with ginger, scallions and snow peas in a light soy-wasabi dressing--tasty, very light, very healthy bikini food. But the goat curry, to my mind, stole the show. It arrived in an enormous white bowl, with chunks of bone-in goat meat draped in a balmy, baroque sauce the color of red velvet with perfectly steamed jasmine rice alongside. The sauce was a deft blend of [garam masala][9], garlic, onions, ginger, tomatoes and a splash of cream, slowly simmered to a luxe consistency--not cooked down to a bitter glue on some steamtable. The goat meat was tender and sweet, melting from the bone--one of Barney's mother's recipes (most of the Nepali dishes are hers). She's collaborating with Barney on a Nepali cookbook. We had a little post-prandial stretch and contemplated a stroll to the [Bourgeois Pig][10] for coffee. Sula had just proposed [Telly Savalas][11] as the greatest living actor of the last century (she's Greek); I figured we needed to sober up, to shake off the gardenia somnolence that always follows a good meal.Simplicity and taste--that's what Zen Zero is all about. The muted decor and discreet tapestries, the soft bustle, the display kitchen and the open stations; air and light and space--the place is designed to display the customers, and indeed, the customer has been considered in every aspect of Zen Zero. From the well-executed, something-for-everyone/Greatest Hits menu, to the understated hip atmosphere, to the warm manner of service--everything is designed to make you happy. And you will be.Postscript: Alejandro and Barney have been catering to, and learning about, the Lawrence taste for over a decade. They've zeroed in on it. Once again they offer us a place with high standards of quality and creativity, both an asset and a spur to the restaurant community. I'm glad they do business in Lawrence, and contribute so well to the downtown culture. I'm glad there's a place that puts exactly ten pleats in their dumplings, and that treats you very well for a ten dollar bill. [1]: http://calendars.lawrence.com/places/183/ [2]: http://www.ljworld.com/section/archive/story/124697 [3]: http://www.pilgrimpage.com/company.htm [4]: http://eat.epicurious.com/dictionary/food/index.ssf?DEF_ID=4143 [5]: http://www.mcgarvey.net/cooking.htm [6]: http://blogs.lawrence.com/foodways/entries/17/ [7]: http://www.igha.org/USDA.html [8]: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2341.html [9]: http://www.food-nepal.com/ingredients/i004.htm [10]: http://calendars.lawrence.com/places/196/ [11]: http://www.tellysavalas.com/

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