The ramen craze has finally hit Naples. In fact, if you took every trendy Asian dish that had eluded our shores and boxed it up with edgy, laidback surroundings, you’d get Zen Asian BBQ, a storefront that opened on U.S. 41 in December.
Most restaurants conquering more than one country’s food have played it safe with a cookie-cutter formula: basic selection of sushi, a few Thai curries, some Japanese entrées, done.
Grill your own meat with this Japanese hot stove.
I had guessed it was only a matter of time before Naples saw Japan’s freshly spun ramen, chewy Taiwanese boba and Seoul’s soy-slicked tabletop-grilled meats—but I didn’t expect them all to launch from one place, or to such exacting standards.
“Welcome to our family restaurant,” our waiter said as we sat down. “We’re a Japanese pub with Korean barbecue serving Asian tapas.”
My friends and I decided we’d order rounds to share and pace ourselves, endurance being the goal.
A quick glance at the succinct wine and beer list, and we couldn’t resist the Tiki-esque “Drunken Watermelon” ($14.95), the only mixed drink: a hollowed-out shell refilled with pulp swirled with chilled house sake. We also felt a bottle of Tozai Snow Maiden nigori ($15.95), a smooth yet stiff version of the rice wine, was in order. It came cleverly presented with shot glasses wedged in shaved ice.
Our first dish, bok choy ($6.95) dipped in a deep fryer and dusted with toasted walnuts, elicited an early, “I would definitely come back here,” from one of my companions. The other, enchanted by the plum-sweetened soy sauce, echoed, “This is wonderful—the flavor is drawn down the stalk.”
Spicy tuna tacos ($9.95) were a bright, beautiful combination of diced sushi-grade fish, crème fraiche, mashed avocado, fresh jalapeños and sweet segments of ruby-red Japanese citrus enveloped by crispy wonton shells.
Like how the tacos didn’t square neatly into any one canon, the wagyu roll ($14.95) ventured into fusion territory, flirting with the West. The thinnest slices of seared heritage beef were laid atop a shrimp tempura roll with an aromatic balsamic-
truffle glaze. An earthy grilled octopus ($14.95) was a similar knockout, the flesh the right firm consistency.
As we were catching our breath, my friend pointed to the remnants: “They’re just too good to leave.”
Plates cleaned, our waiter brought new silverware and bowls for what we had been most looking forward to: Hokkaido
ramen ($16.95), dolsot bibimbap ($13.95) and galbi gui barbecued short ribs ($25.95).
We could instantly tell this mess of noodles was the antithesis of the mustard-yellow blocks cooked on many a college hot plate. Handmade daily, the grown-up version also came with a lengthy king crab leg, broth-poached egg and kernels of shaved corn. That broth, simmered for 17 hours, was rich and complex, with a gut-punch of spice sneaking in after a few spoonfuls.
Even though the barbecue items come with white rice and a pupu platter of tiny shareables (seaweed salad, kimchee, marinated veggies), I convinced my friends we needed bibimbap. The Korean dish of shredded carrots, mushrooms, sprouts, ground beef, fiery hot sauce and an egg is blended tableside with rice in a piping-hot stone bowl until a satisfying crunch forms along the edges.
To try any of the Korean DIY meats, you need to request a table with a grill. Our short ribs, delivered as wafer-thin squares of garlic-and-soy-marinated beef ready to be sizzled on our gilded dome, could be wrapped in crisp lettuce leaves with the various sides and condiments or savored alone. I did the latter with my lion’s share.
Nearly ready to loosen our belts and surrender, I slipped in an order of two desserts. “Sweets go straight to your heart, not your stomach,” our waiter encouraged.
He may be onto something, because in minutes we devoured “cocoa in a jar” ($8), a whimsical play on edible dirt. The mixture—bits of raspberries, smooth mochi (ice cream covered in gummy rice paste), squishy boba (jelly balls) and crunchy Oreos—deployed the layering of textures that had made other dishes so successful. We appreciated the infusion of green tea into crème brûlée ($6) as well.
When we got up to leave, we felt as if congratulations were in order. We did it! We relished every last bite. We also agreed that if fresh thinking on the usual pan-Asian formula is what you’re craving, you’ll reach nirvana at Zen.
Zen Asian BBQ
10823 Tamiami Trail N., Naples, 239-260-7037, eatatzen.com. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. until midnight. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations encouraged.