Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 26
 
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
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It’s New to Us by Jean Stratton



ASIAN AMBIANCE: Zen, the attractive new restaurant on Witherspoon Street, offers modern Asian cuisine and an inviting, relaxed atmosphere. The characters shown to the right in the photo represent tea and Zen, notes owner James Chuang. “It’s a welcoming greeting.

Ichiban, Formerly a Japanese Restaurant, Has New Name, New Cuisine, and New Look

“I didn’t want this to feel like a restaurant. I wanted it to seem as if you are visiting someone’s home.”

James Chuang, owner of the new Zen Modern Asian Cuisine restaurant, which opened in early June, was intent on creating a dining experience which at once offered high quality, delicious Asian food in a setting that encourages leisurely, unhurried dining, with time to appreciate and savor the dishes.

Thus, the name.

“Zen is a state of mind,” he explains. “We want people to enjoy relaxed dining here. Our idea of having the Zen atmosphere is so important. People are so rushed, in such a hurry today. We want them to come here and take time to unwind and enjoy themselves.”

The restaurant, which is located at 66 Witherspoon Street (corner of Hulfish) is the site of the former Ichiban Japanese restaurant, which Mr. Chuang also owned. When Ichiban was forced to close for four months due to a disastrous flood, he decided to make a change.

“We have completely changed the decor and design; we now have a bamboo floor, for example,” he explains. “Our menu is designed for all day dining, and our specialty is modern Asian cuisine, which is unique to us. We know how to cook in the style of different cuisines, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. We have a lot of family recipes, and we are always creating new recipes and dishes.”

First-timers

In the short time Zen has been open, Mr. Chuang’s efforts have been appreciated by many diners, some who had been patrons of Ichiban, but many who are first-timers.

“The food is awesome!” says a new — now regular — customer. “There are so many great choices, including vegetarian dishes.”

Mr. Chuang’s journey to Zen, and formerly to Ichiban, is fascinating. A native of Taiwan, he learned about cooking from his mother, and he helped in the family restaurant there.

Then, 25 years ago he came to the U.S. as a student, and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. After a few years in that field, he had an opportunity to go into the catering business in New York City, and once again, he found himself in the food business.

“I’ve had 20 years of experience catering in New York for such places as the Waldorf-Astoria, the Plaza Hotel, Metropolitan Club, Cipriani, and others,” he explains.

Then, in 1995, he and partners opened Ichiban, which became very popular, and he found Princeton an appealing location. “We have a lot of international people in Princeton, and people who have traveled. This is a great spot on Witherspoon Street, too. We gets lots of tourists as well as many regulars who live here.”

New Design

With its new design, Zen can now seat 45 people in its dining room (which can also be reconfigured for private parties) and 40 outdoors in its lovely, tranquil Japanese garden, complete with fountain and lanterns.

Lunch, dinner, take-out, and catering are available, and catering is Mr. Chuang’s specialty. “We do corporate and residential catering, and all sizes of events. And if you are planning a private party or event, you can call us ahead to plan the menu. One of the things people like so much about our food and Zen catering is the combination of the Asian ingredients with a western type of presentation.”

Zen offers a variety of enticing dishes, such as appetizers, sushi, salads, lunch boxes, and prix-fixe Zen dinner platters. Popular items include Zen soup, with cabbage, pork, dried shrimp, mushrooms, and fried egg. “This is my mother’s recipe,” reports Mr. Chuang.

Duck salad, with shredded roasted duck, onions, cucumber, lettuce, and Thai-style dressing is another favorite, as is the basil shrimp appetizer. Other appetizers, starting at $3.95, include edamame (steamed young soybeans, sprinkled with salt), peking duck wraps, eel spring roll, and spicy tuna spring roll.

“Our gourmet sushi is completely original,” points out Mr. Chuang. “It is aesthetically and tastefully modern. We have many, many varieties, including the popular ‘Princeton Cake’, featuring eel, smoked salmon, avocado, tobiko, unagi sauce, and mint leaves.”

Lunch favorites include the bento or lunch boxes filled with a savory assortment of many choices, all including miso soup, salad, and main entree, such as broiled salmon, pineapple shrimp, or tuna avocado roll, among many others. Lunch boxes are $9.95.

Popular Choices

The prix-fixe Zen platters, at $29.95, are popular dinner choices and include tea, choice of brown or white rice, and dessert, accompanying the main entree. Curried chicken, Asian-style B-B-Q ribs, tuna cake, salmon cake, and yellow tail roll, are among the selections.

“We also offer Robatayaki, which is a traditional Japanese barbecue, served on a skewer,” says Mr. Chuang.

A very appealing feature of the Zen menu is the inclusion of illustrations of many of the dishes. They provide a good idea of what the dishes consist of, especially for people wanting to sample something new.

Desserts include green tea ice cream, red bean ice cream, rice pudding, and green tea pudding, among others.

The variety of teas available at Zen is remarkable. “We have all kinds of organic teas as well as blooming teas, fruit teas, bubble teas, and slushies,” notes Mr. Chuang. “We have a partnership with Shangri La, which is a pioneer in specialty organic teas and various iced teas.”

In addition, Zen plans to offer a traditional Afternoon Tea, including English-style pastries. “This will be a combination of Asian and western style traditions,” he reports.

“I love to eat,” he adds, smiling, “and I want to introduce more people to our wonderful, healthy way of eating. Our food is so fresh, and it’s very light and healthy. You will not find another place like this in the area.”

Zen does not have a liquor license, but customers often bring wine.

The restaurant is open Monday through Thursday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 to 11. (609) 683-8323. Website: www.zenmodernasian.com.

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