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Zen Is Now

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the opening of Zen Grill, the new wave of pan-Asian restaurants has finally come rolling into the Valley.

As at the original Zen Grill near the Beverly Center on the other side of the hill, the decor shows Chinese and Japanese influences. In the evenings, the place feels coolly Deco, with its parquet floor and red walls adorned with prewar posters of Chinese models. Japanese screens and lanterns add a discreet charm.

The food also represents Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam and India, as well as China and Japan. So if you can’t find something you like here, you probably just don’t like Asian food.

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I recommend starting a meal with dishes from the “zen-sum” section of the menu, which covers sushi, satay, soups and dim sum--layered smoked salmon sushi, for instance, each bite topped with a mild wasabi cream. The sweet sticky plum sauce on the minced chicken in lettuce cups will have you crying for more.

But the Korean-style barbecued short ribs, though fragrant with garlic, are on the tough side. The fried gyoza dumplings are relatively bland, and the steamed shrimp dumplings nice but mono-textural.

Noodle and rice dishes are particularly satisfying. The pad Thai is better than you’ll get at most Thai restaurants on the Boulevard. For once, the sauce on the noodles is not excessively sweet.

Roasted garlic spinach fried rice goes beautifully with stir-fried meat dishes. It’s wonderful to come across perfectly caramelized cloves of garlic in a heap of rice.

Among the stir-fried dishes, the X.O. green beans combine the mild sweetness of fresh green beans with a rich brown sauce spiked with funky dried shrimp. At just $4.50, this dish is a steal. And the Mongolian lamb loin, stir-fried with green onions, is about as tender a lamb dish as you’ll get anywhere in this city.

Pass on Saigon noodle, though. The rice noodles are steeped in a broth made with chicken instead of beef, at a distinct flavor loss. Get the miso ramen instead. This huge bowl of noodle soup is spinach, leeks, three chunks of delicious braised pork and plenty of those long, skinny ramen noodles in a fermented bean broth.

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If America had Asian-style night markets, this place would be standing-room only.

NOTE: In last week’s column, we gave the old phone number for Benvenuti Ristorante in Encino. The new number is (818) 382-9777.

BE THERE

Zen Grill, 14543 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Open Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-10 p.m. No alcohol. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, $26-$39. Suggested dishes: minced chicken in lettuce cups, $3.50; miso ramen, $5.75; roasted garlic spinach fried rice, $5.75; X.O. green beans, $4.50; Mongolian lamb loin, $9.25. Call (818) 461-8444.

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