Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Now and Zen

Zen Zero brings together fare from Nepal, Tibet, Thailand and Japan.

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Zen has become such a hip word over the past three decades that it's now attached to all kinds of things that have nothing to do with enlightenment, including alarm clocks, acoustic cables, Internet search engines, and rolling papers. In Italian, zen means the same thing it does in English: meditation, coming from the early Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese chín and made famous by the school of Mahayana Buddhism, which, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, "asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation and intuition rather than faith and devotion."

But zenzero is the Italian word for ginger and also the inspiration for Zen Zero, the eleven-month-old noodle shop and restaurant on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence. The spartan restaurant might be a good place to find enlightenment of the culinary kind; the eclectic Asian cuisine -- with recipes from Nepal, Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan -- is superb, reasonably priced and served with élan. I can't help but meditate on why noodle shops in Kansas City seem to be, in contrast to this no-frills Lawrence joint, more zero than Zen.

Despite the restaurant's Italian name, there are no Mediterranean dishes on the menu, and not too many gingery ones. But the simple noodle transcends geography. Oh, yes, I've heard the tale that thirteenth-century explorer Marco Polo took Chinese noodles back to Venice (a story most culinary historians dispute; there's evidence that southern Italians were dining on pasta long before Marco Polo left on his travels to the Orient), but if it were true, something must have been lost in the translation over the centuries. Chef Boyardee -- and there really was one -- didn't come up with a canned version of, say, phad lhad noa to accompany his heat-and-eat cheese ravioli.

It took Lawrence restaurateurs Alejandro Lule, born in Mexico, and Subarna Bhattachan, a native of Nepal, to bring such a varied selection of exotic noodle dishes, soups and appetizers to their restaurant. It's a cool and comfortable setting: blond-wood tables and chairs, walls painted a tawny terra-cotta, light fixtures shaded either with bamboo steamers or hand-blown glass art. The room possesses an elegant simplicity, but there are none of the finer touches -- the napkins are paper, and the beverage tumblers are plastic.

My style-conscious friend Ned liked the dining room but cringed at the sight of fluorescent light fixtures casting a harsh, cold light from the steamy, partially open kitchen. "They need to put up screens to hide those ugly lights," Ned said, cradling a glass of Chardonnay and nibbling one of the crunchy shrimp chips heaped in a red plastic basket. I thought the chips tasted like Styrofoam, even dipped in hot chili sauce. Ned was more philosophical: "They bring out these things for free. If they tasted good, no one would order an appetizer. So for God's sake, order one."

I did, the Tibetan treat known as momos (called Himalayan dumplings on the menu), which my friend Sally ate with gusto two years ago during a long trek across Nepal. "They're traditionally stuffed with vegetables," she'd told me. "But I've eaten them filled with yak meat, which wasn't very good."

At Zen Zero, the only available meat filling is turkey, not yak. We ordered the crescent-shaped dumplings filled only with cabbage, peas, carrots and shallots. They're served steamed or sautéed; the latter are more delicious by far, slightly crispy and wonderful dipped in two cooling chutneys: one made with creamy yogurt and coconut, the other a spicier version with cumin and puréed tomatoes. We also sampled an order of fried tofu, triangles of lightly sautéed bean curd that could be dipped in a translucent sweet-and-sour sauce.

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