‘Zen’ is one of those words we’ve all heard but nobody seems to know what it means. A bit like ‘zeitgeist’ or ‘drisheen’. We usually find it coupled with Buddhism. Zen, that is, not drisheen. What the difference is between zen Buddhism and plain, unvarnished, bog standard Buddhism I have simply no idea.
Wikipedia (slogan: ‘Never Wrong for Long’) is not much help, telling you that zen “emphasises experiential wisdom – particularly as realised in the form of meditation known as ‘zazen’ – in the attainment of awakening, often simply called the path of enlightenment”. (Any the wiser? Me neither.)
Next, I turned to a book called ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by one Robert Pirsig. It’s been on my shelf for years, unread. Published in 1974, it sold over 4 million copies in twenty-seven languages, most widely read philosophy book ever. ‘Zen and…’ was initially rejected by 121 publishers and, after ploughing through the first forty pages, I came to the conclusion that the 122nd must have been a real soft touch.
The book describes a 17-day motorcycle journey across the USA by the author and his son, joined for the first nine days by two friends. The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, which the author calls ‘chatauquas’, on riveting topics like epistemology and ethical emotivism. (Still with me? Oh, do keep up!)
By now you are entitled to ask “Where is all this leading?” At this point I should reveal that, last Monday night, I ate in a restaurant called ‘Zen’; a Chinese located in a bijou redundant church in Rathmines. Via the above pseudo-philosophical rambling I was simply trying to establish whether the pithy three-letter word had any possible connection with some of the worst food I have eaten in the past five years.
To give Zen the Restaurant its due, the welcome is warm and the room, lovely although the ‘world’s longest railway carriage seat’ that splits the dining area into two takes a bit of getting used to. Throughout the meal I kept peering beyond the great divide, trying to ascertain whether diners on the far side were eating from a different, nicer menu.
Zen, like many, has created a recession-ready USP – “Eat-in food at take-away prices”. The deal holds good Monday-through-Thursday. It was only afterwards, perusing the menu out front, I realised that what the proposition actually offers is “Eat-in from the take-away menu at take-away prices”. There is a difference.
Certain dishes were excluded from the menu we were presented with at table. There was some overlap, however, enabling me to make a true value-for-money appraisal. If I had paid the full €18.50 for the ‘crispy king prawns’ I’d have been mightily pissed off. The (mere) seven crispy prawns were not crispy. They had shrunk, too. ‘Flaccid queen prawns’ would have been a more accurate description. They tasted of absolute zilch, merely emphasising the revolting gloop they came bathed in.
For starters Bangles and I had spare ribs, barbecued as if to an order of ‘well-done to cremated’, accompanied by a small dish of an unspecified icky-sweet commercial jar-sauce; also, what we dubbed ‘the creatures from the black lagoon’, four gristle-filled dumplings, ponderous as elphants’ testicles, swimming in a swamp of soy sauce. The pastry skin, coagulated and adhesive, could have been pressed into service as an emergency tyre. Mains were no better. I am a bit of a duck tifoso and get quite misty eyed at the thought of a brawny Chinese chef in London, Manchester, Hong Kong or indeed, in the Imperial in Exchequer Street, taking a cleaver to a moist, springy, succulent honey-basted roasted Silver Hill’s finest and whopping it on a plate. The Zen version was but a cartoon of the real thing, vapid, warmed-over. The sauce surrounding the ‘beef in hot bean sauce’ was not hot in either sense of the word. As Bangles observed, taste-wise it was the identical twin of the viscous gum that enveloped the prawns. The beef, cut into shreds, had been tenderised to the texture of liver; only with less flavour or, more accurately, none.
The wine list was as dull as by now you’d imagine. Our modest Anjou Chenin Blanc at €23 (a 2004, they mustn’t sell much of it) had, in the words of wicked old Churchill, “much to be modest about”. The final tally came to €70.50. Had we paid the full menu price I’d suspect it would be up somewhere near €110 and very poor value indeed.
The sheer bloody-minded laziness of the average Chinese restaurant never ceases to amaze me. Let’s fling it back at the cooks. Canton, Sichuan, Fukien, Hunan, whatever province, these are all simple cuisines. As the French and Italians know, peasant cooking only works if the ingredients are pristine and the cooking precise. At the same time, why aren’t the younger generation of Chinese chefs more inventive? Why aren’t they, like their Indian counterparts, rolling back the frontiers, trying novel combinations that bring a touch of pizazz to table? Why, for sweet Jesus’ sake, aren’t they even making their own sauces? Or is it not arrogance or laziness but contempt? Do they despise the Irish diner because we want every bloody thing ‘crispy’ or ‘barbecued’ or ‘sweet-and-sour’ with prawn crackers and egg fried rice? Do we just get the Chinese food we deserve?
The damage: €70.50, ex-service, for 2 starters, 3 mains plus rice, bottle of house wine.
Verdict: Nice people, nice place, awful food. Robert Persig deemed the concept of quality to be undefinable. But then he never ate here.
Zen, 89 Upper Rathmines Road, Rathmines, Dublin 6, Tel: 01 497 9428