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Rock shrimp and Zen-Sum: Pan-Asian fare with style

Times Staff Writer

When I call my sister at 7 to make sure she remembers that we’re going to dinner at the new Zen Grill, she is already pulling into the parking lot there. But our reservation is at 7:30, I squawk as I rummage through my closet, looking for my shoes.

“I’ll be in the sake lounge,” she tells me blithely.

My little sister has never liked to be confined to a time frame -- or even to the dinner table, if she can help it. That’s why I thought this new Westwood hot spot would be perfect for her. She’d appreciate the pan-Asian theme and the whiff of the exotic in every dish. And since most of the plates are meant to be shared, she could eat as much, or as little, as she wanted.

When I arrive at the tall, imposing building on Broxton Avenue, I find my sister and a friend happily ensconced in the sake lounge at the top of a sweeping crimson staircase. The two are sitting at the very end of the half-empty bar, talking and sipping litchi-infused sake cocktails from chilled martini glasses. I take a sip of her “saketini.” The litchi juice gives the round, sweet taste of the sake a fragrant lilt. I decide to try one of the dozen sakes by the glass, and choose Kubota Senjyu at $10 a glass. It’s soft and opulent with a rich, sweet finish. Sometimes a sake sommelier is there to advise, but not that night.

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Coming down the stairs to the dining room, we note the oversized abacus beads on the railing and the giant photos, skewed black-and-white shots of Buddhas and temples with an overlay of red that gives them an eerie presence. Designer Dodd Mitchell floats the honeycomb ceiling so high above the dining room that it sometimes feels as if you’re sitting at the bottom of a well, while around you gauzy Japanese flags hung as banners float in the darkness. The fluorescent white glare from the kitchen is the only jarring note in the gloom.

Yet somehow the room doesn’t quite come alive. Low-riding woven leather sofa/banquettes are certainly comfy enough. And the tabletops of strips of ebony give the room a relaxed, informal air. Maybe it’s the crowd, mostly college students and moviegoers giving the place a tentative once-over.

Zen Grill’s food is perfectly pitched to mainstream tastes. It’s Asian without being too unfamiliar or challenging, which is what has made the original modest cafe in Los Angeles (with a branch in Beverly Hills) so popular. Nothing is spicy enough to take the top of your head off; most dishes are mildly seasoned. The menu at this more upscale locale covers the gamut from sashimi and sushi to pot stickers, pad Thai, Singapore noodles and a grilled rib-eye steak. So there’s plenty of room for experimentation. I even got an Italian who had never tried raw fish before to take a bite of albacore sashimi with a thin slice of jalapeno and a splash of ponzu. He liked it.

Start things off by ordering a slew of small dishes from the Zen-Sum and Zen Fish sections of the menu. They’re not so small, actually. Four people will certainly get more than a bite each. Chicken satay is fat and juicy strips of chicken threaded onto skewers and served in a mild-mannered peanut sauce with a cooling cucumber salad. Shrimp dumplings are steamed in a rice flour wrapper, not any better or worse than those served at your local dim sum restaurant. Chicken pot stickers are perfectly respectable, too. And rock shrimp and calamari tempura are surprisingly light, rushed from the kitchen while they’re too hot to pick up with your fingers. Don’t forget to order some shishito, those little green Japanese peppers tossed in a smoking hot wok with chile and garlic until the peppers just begin to shrivel. Also highly recommended: the small plate of kalbi, Korean-style barbecued short ribs, with a few leaves of the notoriously garlicky kimchi.

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I don’t know what to make of something like Zen’s signature rice tower. More canape than tower, it’s a cake of rice topped with sliced raw tuna, avocado and a racy wasabi sauce. Sushi purists won’t be happy here, but everyone who likes their raw fish doctored will. For me, the spicy tuna Vietnamese spring roll doesn’t work. What’s Vietnamese about it? The rice paper wrapper? And I don’t think raw tuna likes mayonnaise, spicy or no. Saigon soup, which sounds like their version of Vietnamese pho, unfortunately was never available on any of my visits.

Chef and partner Ryu Hamada makes a wonderful Indian-accented chicken salad with grilled chicken breast, tomatoes and cucumbers with a little basmati rice and greens all tossed in a spicy sesame dressing. Glass noodles and greens embellished with lightly fried calamari is another sure find.

Some people stop right there, sated. But we haven’t even gotten to the more substantial dishes. The surprise here is the sizzling pan-fried tofu steak which a meat-loving friend slipped onto the order one night. Big triangles of tofu, two fingers thick, are stacked one behind the other on a bed of broccoli, delicious in a gently smoldering chile sauce. The texture is almost meaty. Thai green curry is too timid, tasting mostly of coconut sauce. And the classic Mongolian stir-fry, either beef or lamb with green onions and garlic, may be too sweet for anybody used to eating in Monterey Park. Grilled rib-eye steak is a steal at $18: 12 ounces of beef charred rare and cut into thick slices, served in a garlic shoyu jus with delicious stir-fried long beans.

Compared to the list of 60-odd sakes, the wine list is positively meager, a mere eight selections plus a few French Champagnes. The choices seem consciously uninspired.

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This may be the moment to delve into the world of sake, here represented by bottles ranging in price from $15 to $150. Grouping them by such characteristics as “fragrant,” “light & smooth,” and “rich” doesn’t help the novice much in choosing, though. If the sake sommelier is nowhere in evidence, you’re best off trying some by the glass and hoping you’ll hit one that suits.

Coconut creme brulee for dessert hits all the right notes. It’s a fragile custard with the thinnest burnt-sugar crust, a perfect coda to a meal at Zen Grill & Sake Lounge. But the sauteed bananas with a ball of ice cream melting on top aren’t bad either. And for minimalist appetites, a spoonful of mango sorbet should suffice.

Zen Grill has one problem: It looks more expensive than it is. Though a sidewalk patio gives it a presence on the street, you can’t really see inside. People walking by hesitate out front, peer inside and see this rather grand room.

Because the bar is upstairs and at the back, it feels like a commitment for dinner just to walk in the door. And with no indication out front of just what the prices are, some balk. Actually, Zen Grill’s prices are more than reasonable. It’s hard to spend much more than $25 or $30 a person no matter how much you eat.

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The revival of Westwood Village has been a long time coming. Zen Grill & Sake Lounge adds one more lure to the mix of restaurants, especially since it stays open late enough for eating after a movie or play or studying for your finals.

*

Zen Grill & Sake Lounge

Rating: * 1/2

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Location: 1051 Broxton Ave., Westwood; (310) 209-1994.

Ambience: Lavish Asian-themed decor features a honeycomb ceiling, woven-leather banquettes, banners printed with the Japanese flag and, of course, the requisite Buddha figure presiding. The crowd is a mix of college students and Westside moviegoers.

Service: Earnest and California-friendly.

Price: Dishes from the Zen-Sum and Zen Fish sections of the menu at dinner, $3 to $12; soups and salads, $3 to $10; larger plates, $8 to $20; desserts, $5 to $6. At lunch, Zen-Sum and Zen Fish, $3 to $8; soups and salads, $3 to $10; larger plates, $11 to $20; desserts, $5 to $6.

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Best dishes: Rock shrimp and calamari tempura, chicken satay, kalbi (short ribs), crispy calamari salad, pan-fried tofu steak, Mongolian lamb, grilled rib-eye steak with long beans, coconut creme brulee.

Wine list: Outshone by a 60-label sake list. Corkage, $15.

Best table: One of the posh booths/ banquettes along the wall.

Details: Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Beer, wine, sake and shochu (distilled sake). Parking in nearby lots, $2 to $5.

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Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.


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