The word Zen has come to be associated with a calm and tranquil state of focus and relaxed is certainly what I felt when I visited the restaurant of the same name at the weekend, thanks to its palpable chilled-out vibe.
Zen Asian Bistro is tucked away in a corner of the Oman Avenues Mall food court and the first thing I noticed as I approached is that you can enter from two sides, which gave Zen an open and airy feel. Seating options range from regular tables both inside and outside the restaurant, to traditional Asian low-to-the-ground tables and stools positioned around an open sushi kitchen.
A smiling waitress welcomed us as soon as we arrived and we took a seat in one of the cosy booths inside.
The extensive choice is a theme that extends from the seating to the menu, with a colourful array of dishes from Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and the Philippines all on offer, in addition to a selection of international dishes with a fusion twist. The flag of each country is situated next to each dish so you know which part of the world you are ordering from, which is a thoughtful extra. The restaurant certainly looks the business, now I just had to see if the food would measure up.
Our own culinary journey would take us to Japan, Indonesia and Thailand thanks to “Dynamite Prawns” as a shared starter, mee goreng from the Wok Fried Noodles section and Thai black pepper beef from under the Wok Specials heading. Drinks were a simple bottle of water and a virgin mojito for myself, which was served elaborately in a tall glass bottle, complete with a bendy straw and paper umbrella. Given a sharp and sour hit by plenty of lemon and lime, it tasted great.
The menu also boasted one of the most extensive sushi offerings in Muscat, with imaginatively named creations such as “Godzilla” and “Groovy Ebi Maki” and while this caught my attention, it will have to wait until next time.
When our starter arrived, it struck me as an Asian take on the traditional prawn cocktail. The prawns themselves had been fried in an extremely light batter, which was good because it meant they were not too heavy, and the “dynamite” came from the sauce they were smothered in. Although I couldn’t pin down the exact ingredients of the dynamite sauce, it provided a sweet moreish tang and the blast of chilli was instant. All in all, things had started well.
We had barely put our chopsticks to one side when the next course arrived and my first impression was that there was a lot of food. Thankfully, making my way through the meal would not be a chore because it tasted great. The tenderloin beef had been thinly sliced and well cooked in an excellent black pepper sauce, while onions and red and yellow peppers provided a pleasing crunch. The dish also came with a bowl of sticky white rice, something that you occasionally have to pay extra for in other places.
Although my black pepper beef had a fire icon next to it on menu, indicating that it was spicy, it wasn’t quite hot enough for my tastes, but the addition of some extra chilli sauce rectified this easily enough.
The mee goreng was equally large, with thick noodles, a fried egg, prawn crackers and both chicken and prawns. The dish was far from dry and the meat was nice and chunky, although the smokiness of the taste was slightly overpowering and ultimately, my dining partner could only battle his way through half of the dish.
The portion size had defeated us both and we couldn’t face the dessert menu, instead opting for two espressos to finish things off. My friend is Italian and the fact that the coffee won his approval is perhaps the highest praise possible.
The service was good throughout, with the food arriving a mere 10 minutes after ordering and the waitress responding quickly when I requested something spicy to give my dish a bit of a kick. The only marks dropped here were when our dirty plates were left at the table for just a little too long, not being cleared until our coffees arrived.
But this is a small criticism of what was a laid back and enjoyable experience overall. And with plenty of intriguing dishes on the menu, it wouldn’t be hard to tempt me back once again.
Relaxed setting for good Asian food
Zen Asian Bistro
Oman Avenues Mall
Tel: 2206 0200
Opening hours: 10am-11pm daily
Dinner for two: RO19.3