There’s been a shift in Hong Kong Island’s dining scene over the past couple of years. Yes, there are still plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants going for the finest dishes but casual, friendly, neighbourhood dining has taken centre-stage over complex, formal cuisine – particularly in places like Sheung Wan, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. The focus is now on the rise of the trendy bistro, izakaya, yakitori and fusion resturants. It all caters for the tastes of the younger generations who seek hip, modern food that’s approachable.
However, when it comes to Cantonese cuisine, the options are still, on the whole, the traditional dai pai dongs or the banquet-style spots. These hardly suit the hip and happening young diners. However, this too is changing. And new Cantonese eatery, Zen Too, personifies the modern movement. This restaurant, which has just opened in Causeway Bay’s Soundwill Plaza II-Midtown, dishes up traditional Cantonese but adds a plethora of contemporary twists. It’s the new-look Zen, which once stood in Admiralty, and is part of the Zen Chinese Cuisine Restaurant Group, who claim that ‘mark two’ is a space that tries to ‘bring a modern concept that draws young people back to Cantonese cuisine’.
Upon entering the space, we’re drawn to the clean lines and sleek design. Unlike Cantonese restaurants where the aesthetic veers towards the tacky, Zen Too opts for a classy, restrained ambience. The concrete floors, high ceilings, wooden furniture and metallic accents of the butterfly sanctuary light fixtures give off a comfortable vibe in the main room, as well as in the handful of private rooms and the stylish bar.
We start our meal off with the Zen trio amuse bouche ($88) – a delicately served plate of fresh abalone, beef flank bites and bean curd. The curd is simple and tasty, fried with a delish mild soy sauce, and the beef flank is tender and flavourful. The clear standout, though, is the abalone, which is marinated in a sake that brings out the strong shellfish flavour.
Sweet and sour pork
The sweet and sour pork ($58) served in a pineapple bun cup is next up – and it’s beautifully presented but, sadly, doesn’t hit the mark. The bun is far too big and so sweet that it overpowers the not-tangy-enough pork, rendering the meat superfluous. Luckily, though, redemption quickly comes in the form of the ‘rock and roll oysters’, which are stir-fried, layered with minced salmon and mayonnaise, and wrapped in a deep-fried Vietnamese crêpe. The bivalves are juicy and full of the flavours of the sea, while the crêpe gives the whole dish a perfect crunch. And it’s neither oily nor heavy. We’d come back for this alone.
For mains we opt for the DIY beef flank ($73), which sees slices of the tender meat in a curry sauce that is scooped into a flaky baked pastry cup. The beef is rich and is complemented by the poky curry. But the cup is pointless, creating both a mess of flavours and a mess on the plate. Like the pork, the added carbs here distract from the proteins and ruin the dish.
Our vegetable dishes – the ‘dancing miso aubergine’ ($38) and pan-fried bitter melon in gingko and bean curd broth ($38) – shine, however. The aubergine is meaty in texture and juicy to the touch, with added cod flakes that give it tantalising salty sea accents. The sliced melon is both sweet and bitter in equal parts and would appeal to the more mature palate. Its broth brings the dish together well.
To end, we order a carb that’s off the menu – the marinated seafood truffle rice (pictured above/ $68), which is served in a stone pot. It’s an exquisite dish that we hope they put on the menu. The rice is cooked to perfection and the combination of black bean sauce and truffles adds a burst of aromatic flavours that work in harmony on the tongue.
There’s a lot of promise at Zen Too. The food is fresh, some dishes are superb and it’s all far from expensive – and that, with the surrounds, certainly appears to the young and trendy diner. But some dishes do fall flat – probably due to a little over-experimentation with our city’s most traditional cuisine. Hopefully, though, the chefs can fine tune their menu in the coming weeks and get rid of those meals that just aren’t working. Either way, expect joints like Zen Too to pave the way for more modern Cantonese restaurants like this in the future. And that ‘aint no bad thing. Charlie Tamoto
Zen Too, 8/F, Soundwill Plaza II-Midtown, 1 Tang Lung St, Causeway Bay, 2845 4555; facebook.com/zentoohk
Zen trio amuse bouche… $88
Sweet and sour pork… $58
DIY beef flank… $73
Dancing miso aborigine… $38
Pan-fried bitter melon in broth… $38
Marinated seafood truffle rice… $68
Total (for two) $363
|Venue name:||Zen Too|
8/F, Soundwill Plaza II-Midtown, 1 Tang Lung St, Causeway Bay