Dining out: Chinese dishes shine at Zen

I'm not sure who approved the design plans for the exterior of the new Zen Sushi and Gourmet Asian Cuisine on Foothill in La Crescenta, but the menacing look of the boxy white building had kept me at bay for months. Plus, I was irrationally angry that our favorite Chinese restaurant, Grandview Palace, which used to be on the site, was so abruptly and unceremoniously closed. But one step inside has got me singing a different tune.

The interior of Zen looks as if it was designed by a different person altogether. Black and crystal Hollywood Regency-style chandeliers glint above cool scroll-cut wooden bar stools. Sake bottles are silhouetted against a backlit bar and curving cut-out walls glow orange. They were wise to keep the large, dramatic windows offering views of Mount Lukens and the San Gabriels, though the Ralphs parking lot does glare at you in the foreground. All in all, the ambience is sophisticated yet appropriate for families.

Our waiter, Jonathan, was excellent and someone you'd expect to see at a downtown bistro — professional and well-informed. He delivered sizzling dishes promptly and left us alone when warranted. And we kept him hopping as we ordered a wide variety of items.

Zen offers pan-Asian fare (for example sushi, pad Thai and egg rolls) but the bulk of their menu and their strongest offering is Chinese food.

The sushi's artistic presentation is better than the sushi itself. The best was the spider roll ($9.95), a complex and crunchy mouthful with buttery soft shell crab, pickled carrot (yamagobo) and radish (kaiware). The shrimp tempura roll was bland, and the yellowtail roll did not taste fresh, but I got these on a hot Thursday at lunch ($9.95 for both on the lunch special).

The stars of the evening were the Chinese dishes — kung pao san yang, honey walnut shrimp and jade chicken (all priced at $8.95 for a medium order or $3 to $4 more for a large). They are masters of shrimp preparation at Zen. The shrimp in the kung pao and honey walnut were moist, flavorful and not at all overcooked. The vegetables are handled with equal finesse, rendering them crisp and colorful.

The kung pao san yang's bright-green onions and juicy mushrooms blend with the shrimp, chicken and beef for a bold and spicy finish. The honey walnut shrimp has beautiful chunks of pineapple in a coconut milk batter and delicious candied walnuts. The jade chicken is a sweeter dish. It claims to be smothered in seasonal greens, but it appeared to be only spinach. It is a bounty of hot, tasty spinach though.

The soup and salad are both worth mentioning. The three flavor sizzling rice soup ($4.95 for two; $7.95 for four) has a clean, fresh taste and arrives steaming hot with what look like Rice Krispie Treats floating on top (fun for the kids). The seaweed salad ($6.95) is not slimy, but a crunchy mix of kelly green and celadon slivers with a blast of sesame flavor. Plan on whetting your appetite with one or both of these.

There's not much one can do to improve the horrendous exterior of Zen Sushi Gourmet Asian Cuisine, though a coat of earth-tone paint and some desert-style landscaping might help. But venture inside and enjoy Zen's fresh Chinese food, impressive decor and professional service. It may be even better than the old Grandview Palace.

LISA DUPUY has written about travel, entertainment and food for more than 20 years. She can be reached at ldupuy@aol.com.

Infobox

What: Zen Sushi Gourmet Asian Cuisine

Where: 2650 Foothill Blvd., La Crescenta

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices: Soup, salad and appetizers $2.95 to $16.95; Chinese specialties $7.95 to $14.95; sushi, rolls and sashimi $3.50 to $12.95; lunch specials and bento $5.95 to $16.95

Contact: (818) 248-8500

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