Review: Restaurant Zén Redefines The Comforts Of Fine Dining
It took me a while to gather my thoughts on why Restaurant Zén is worth the splurge, but only because a recent visit had me pondering the most overlooked ingredient in a well-orchestrated fine dining experience. And it has nothing to do with what goes into the food.
It’s not hard to see how a chirpy reception can affect the success of a restaurant meal. But service is a multi-faceted aspect of dining in a restaurant that range from the rudimentary—read: good enough to keep an introvert comfortable, and which may or may not include a feigned smile—to the downright imposing—stiff and intrusive, and very possibly delivered with a brash assumption that the diner doesn’t know what he or she likes.
Thankfully, neither was the case when a friend and I had dinner here. We had expectedly high expectations, particularly of the food—a cuisine that’s modern yet grounded in Nordic sensibilities but that also benefits from influences from Japan—though mostly because Restaurant Zén, the Singapore outpost of Restaurant Frantzén in Stockholm, Sweden, is the only international restaurant under the Frantzén Group to serve a tasting menu exclusively.
We did, however, make a point to leave our sceptical selves at the door, mindful of the fact that no other act of discretionary expense is as predisposed to the uncertainties of a biased palate than the act of dining out.
We were, nonetheless, utterly wooed by the quality of the service—confident and warm, intelligent and engaged but not contrived. It seems small talk is encouraged, and not only did it make perfect sense, our casual conversations about the food and drinks made it a more immersive experience.
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It might also have had something to do with having to ring the doorbell to enter the restaurant, but this little necessity did set the mood nicely. A few steps in and we found ourselves in what might be dubbed in most households—if you live in a three-storey townhouse, that is—the parlour, decked out in a variety of comfortable recliners and accent tables. The plain view of the open kitchen, however, was a constant reminder that we were in a restaurant, even if where we were seated and served our welcome bubbly, the setting was patently cosy.
The lights were also purposely dim but bright enough that you may admire your partner’s varied expressions of elation as she enjoys a sampling of things to come—via the five snacks that preceded the dinner. The bite-sized combination of roe from a vendace (a northern European freshwater fish) from Kalix, Sweden, encased in a delicate interpretation of the råraka (hash brown) was particularly enjoyable as a refined interpretation of a classic pairing. Most memorable, though, was the deceptively simple serving of an updated onion veloute, flavoured with a diplomatic touch of liquorice—just enough to brighten up the dish and lend greater complexity but not so much that the unaccustomed palate might find uneasy. This was served last, after a couple more snacks we enjoyed during a brief yet eloquent presentation of the evening’s bounty—a selection of the season’s best produce that were the stars of tonight’s feast.
Dinner proper was served on the second floor, starting with a teasing ensemble of caviar, red deer and shiso lifted by a little argan oil. While clearly informed by Frantzen’s French culinary experience, a lighter hand with the use of overly fatty flavours was noticeable throughout the meal. Dishes were as savoury as they needed to be. And there wasn’t anything desperately showy or out of the ordinary about their design either, save for a uniquely clever use of one or two unexpected ingredients—like the aforementioned argan oil in the first course—that helped the dishes stand out.
Granted, I did feel like there was a little too much going on—and possibly a tad too much of the butter emulsion—in the serving of lightly grilled marron seasoned with a little sansho pepper. But my dinner partner loved the dish—specifically its complexity and bold flavours that were still balanced enough to allow the sweetness of the marron to shine, accentuated by the smoky flavours of the grill.
We did however agree that service was close to impeccable, which is a rarity in an industry notoriously starved of the required talent and aptitude. It was seamless—waitstaff alternated with chefs to finish the dishes at the table, talking us through the highlights of each dish in the process.
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One dish that needed little introduction, though, was the truffle crowned French toast “grande tradition” served with a truffle consommé. Or the deftly grilled quail served with fermented and poached kabu. And surely, it’s easy to appreciate a dessert of Hokkaido milk ice cream served with wild strawberries and freshly made waffles. No doubt, dishes will vary according to what’s in season and available. But it’s this restaurant’s creative approach to showcasing an eclectic abundance of premium ingredients and familiar flavours with minimal fuss that won us over. That and the casual yet efficient way it’s served—backed by Frantzen’s personal playlist of top tunes from the '80s and '90s.
Zén | 41 Bukit Pasoh Rd, Singapore 089855 | 9236 6368 | www.restaurantzen.com