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A continent and a well-executed concept speak volumes at Zen Asian Bistro.

click to enlarge food45_zen_bistro_200.jpg

Asia is the largest and most diverse continent, so why do we so often misrepresent its cultural offerings as homogenous? If I say Asian cuisine you probably think of Chinese — mandarin Chinese, specifically. But how many of us are aware of the diversity of traditions within that culture, and how many of us think to include Indian and Japanese, Thai and Philippine in our imagining of what Asian means?

Thankfully, the owners of Zen Asian Bistro in Midlothian have struck upon a restaurant idea that brings a range of Asian foods home to our suburbanized palates. And though they are well aware of their audience and have Americanized the menu a bit, this accommodation comes in the selection of dishes rather than in altered preparations.

Take the most popular choices on the menus of your favorite Indian, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, mandarin, Hunan and Sichuan joints and roll them into one eclectic smorgasbord and you have Zen Asian Bistro. That everything we tried on several visits was as good as or better than we'd had elsewhere in Richmond speaks volumes about the vision of the owners. A restaurant not only needs a good concept to begin with, but also must have consistent execution if it's to turn a profit and keep the doors open.

While we're among the only guests in the dining room on each visit, I note the steady stream of takeout orders being picked up at the bar. The emptiness of the dining room may not always be the best indicator of popularity or quality. It does seem a shame that the gracious staff, the mild dub music and subtle dAccor may be underappreciated. But then this spot is nearly hidden in a shopping center on Huguenot near Robious Road.

Appetizers range from tangy Korean barbecue and spicy calamari to crispy string beans and veggie dumplings. The only disappointment comes in the form of too much cream cheese in the crab wontons, which results in a gooey richness that overwhelms what is otherwise quite good. The chicken satay is marinated and grilled nicely, served with a piquant peanut sauce.

The entrees we sample are well-prepared and spot-on to our expectations. General Tso's chicken and cashew chicken are better than your average Chinese joint and the portions are healthy. The orange chicken is flavored with dried orange peel and may be the best dish we tried. The brown sauce compliments the deep earthiness of orange rind, creating a complex flavor experience. The Mongolian beef could be sliced a bit thinner, but the overall dish is rich and pleasing.

The service is attentive and personal, perhaps owing to the lack of other diners to attend to, and they did appear a bit puzzled that we actually wanted to sit and stay awhile. The warm lighting, minimalist art and ambient music make this one of the more comfortable and modern feeling Asian restaurants to which I've been in the area.

Korean lettuce wraps, Japanese gyoza dumplings, or pad Thai, all are here. You can find a table without a wait. In the restaurant business it is rare to come across an original idea, rarer still to find one that warrants franchising.  Yet a Zen Asian Bistro would be a welcome edition to any neighborhood in Richmond. S

Zen Asian Bistro ($$)
11400 W. Huguenot Road No. 113
Shoppes at Bellgrade
379-7295
Closed Monday
Tuesday-Thursday: Lunch 11 a.m.-
3 p.m.; dinner 5-9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: Lunch 11 a.m.-
3 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m.
Sunday: Dinner 5-10 p.m.
www.zenasianbistro.net

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