ATTENTION TO DETAIL Often an afterthought at other restaurants, Zen's sour soup is made with care.
It seems every time I check out a promising new Chinese place in Portland, federal officials arrest someone at a dismal Chinese restaurant elsewhere in Maine (this week it was the Twin Super Buffet in Brewer that was raided by the feds). Is this the Chinese-food universe maintaining some kind of spiritual balance? Is it karma? In this case it's Zen. Zen Chinese Bistro to be exact, which has taken over the west-Old Port space formerly occupied by District.
Zen the concept is not about transcendence, but rather about deepening the quality of our worldly presence. Zen the Chinese Bistro is not exactly transcendent, but it does enhance the quality of Chinese cuisine in Portland. The menu does not veer far from the beaten path of Americanized-Chinese, but it executes those classic dishes well, with fresh ingredients. That is enough to put Zen among the upper tier of Chinese restaurants in town.
In taking the space over from District, they have not changed it much. There is minimal Asian kitsch. Downstairs is the same bar, with dark wood, black leather booths, and a few tables. And they are taking the bar seriously: they have a nice Asian-tinged cocktail list, some good beer on draft, and a genuine wine list. Upstairs they have brightened the large dining room a bit, mostly with a vibrant blue paint.
Many dishes at this sort of restaurant depend on the quality of the brown sauce that forms the base for so many entrées. Zen has a good one: neither too thick nor too thin, with a nice base of garlic and soy. It's used to good effect in a number of dishes, like Hunan beef, where it had a mild chili heat. It coated big tender pieces of meat and diced veggies — piping hot from the wok, but still with plenty of crunch. The same basic sauce was leant a sharper garlic bite and more aggressive pepper heat in a dish of vegetables with garlic sauce.
Cashew chicken started with a different, lighter, sauce that offered a nice balance of sugars and heat. There were plenty of springy button mushrooms, along with a crunchy mix of celery, carrots, and green bell peppers that were on the edge of red, and thus not too bitter. Sesame chicken was sweet but not candy-sweet like you often get, and the breading stayed crisp rather than getting sauce-soaked.
An udon noodle dish was good as well. The noodles were soft but not mushy, and the pork tender. The dish had that sort of mildness that isn't bland, but allows the quieter umami flavors of onion and mushroom to emerge. And Zen is getting many little things right: The sour soup, too often an afterthought, has been given some care. It has a real sour zing and the bite of fresh scallion. Even a ramekin of sweet house-made duck sauce was a pleasant surprise, as it was cloudy with the pulp of actual fruit. Zen has a chatty owner, usually behind the bar. He will give you work-out tips, and perhaps lead you to off-menu dishes once you are a regular. I wouldn't be surprised if the best dishes are there, since someone in the kitchen knows their stuff.