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A menu as big as Asia
Zen Forrest proves that healthy food can be exciting and that there's far more to the regional pupu platter than Chinese.
By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN
Published July 30, 2004
Many's the time I've looked wistfully southward when Times food critic Chris Sherman has written about exotic Asian and fusion restaurants in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Sure, west Pasco has a couple of Thai and Japanese restaurants, and, arguably, all too many Chinese places.
But what about the rest of Asia?
It's at Zen Forrest, a wonderful, 9-month-old pan-Asian restaurant on Rowan Road just north of State Road 54.
Zen Forrest has Chinese, Thai and Japanese, but it also has Korean and Vietnamese, specialties from Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, and fusion dishes, all with a common theme: flavorful and healthy (low fat, low cholesterol, no MSG).
The preparation is under the caring hand of the owners, half-brothers Patrick Lau, 31, and Victor Wang, 32, who interpret Asian food as a way to heal the body and nourish the soul.
"It's more healthy eating, without losing the great taste," said Lau. "You are what you eat. If you eat well, you will feel well."
Wang explains it in a message to patrons in the Zen Forrest menu: "Studies have shown that many human ailments are caused by a lack of or excess of certain nutrients. Various food have been proven to help prevent many illnesses." He has read extensively on the subject and spent years as a restaurant consultant in New York and Asia to perfect the art of making nutritious food with exciting tastes.
The results are artful assemblages of fresh vegetables, seafood, meats, jasmine and wild rice, herbs and touches of ginseng to please the palate and the body.
So far, Wang said, the favorite dish at Zen Forrest has been Bul Go Gi ($12.50), a slightly sweet Korean dish of tender sirloin marinated in sesame/soy and garlic, cooked in a scorching pan and served with sauteed bean sprouts, julienned carrots, peppers and other veggies, and either rice or potatolike mashed taro root.
My favorite lunch is the Vietnamese Vermicelli Crunch Salad ($6), a refreshing mix of crisp vegetables, herbs, tendrils of chicken (or shrimp or calamari) and thin rice noodles, with nuoc cham dressing made with nuoc mam, a delicately flavored anchovie-based liquid that's subtle and savory.
My mom's favorite is sauteed spinach noodles ($9 vegetarian; with chicken or shrimp, $11.50) in sweet rice wine with vegetables and sprouts. She swears she could eat it every day.
For vegetarians, there are lightly fried tofu steaks with shiitake and straw mushrooms ($10) in a luscious sauce; sharp and snappy Korean Kim Chi ($3.50), a hot pickled cabbage that can make your eyes water; Japanese edamame ($3.50), soy bean pods with ginger, spice and coarse sea salt; fried rice with ginseng ($8.50), and a raft of other exciting plates.
For traditionalists, the names are familiar, but Wang's version is new and fresh: General Tso's Chicken ($6.50 lunch, $11 dinner), with lightly battered strips of chicken in a pool of dark, hot and spicy sauce, with rice; lo mein ($7.50) done in a sizzling wok and topped with crisp sprouts; and Thai coconut curry with lemongrass infused chicken ($11) or shrimp ($13).
"We have people who have tried everything on the menu and they say, "I'm ready for anything. Make me something,' " Wang said. "I try not to go too wild, but doing something new makes my day interesting."
You can make a good meal from appetizers: crispy Zen Forrest rolls with lemon mustard diping sauce ($3.50), which are best hot from the kitchen; Malaysian Satay chicken with peanut sauce ($5.50); Chinese pot stickers with garlic soy dipping sauce ($5.50); or Zen's own whimsical Sushi De Cowboy, a steak and potato roll with green salsa as dipping sauce ($6.50).
Don't pass up the soups: a wonton with both pork and spinach/watercress-filled wontons in a smooth vegetable consomme, or the thick chicken rice soup made from toasty wok-fried rice slow simmered with chicken and a bit of coconut. Each is $3.50 a bowl and filling enough for a light meal.
The brothers bought the restaurant two years ago from their mother, Ally Yip, who had owned and operated the Golden Wok there for 15 years but was ready to retire. They continued the Golden Wok for six months. Then they decided Pasco had enough Chinese restaurants and decided to capitalize on Wang's New York and Asian experience and go for something different.
"We closed for five months to renovate," Lau said. They painted the walls forest green, arranged a few evocative decorator pieces on the walls and put in a hammered copper leaf fountain, evoking a basic Zen principle of simplicity. Outside the entrance is an orderly but profuse garden, a fitting preview for the restaurant's restrained interior.
For a while, Zen Forrest was takeout only. In October, the owners opened the main dining area, with seats for 40 or 50 people. The entire restaurant will seat up to 113 and will be opened as the clientele increases.
"A lot of people don't know we're here," Lau said. "They don't know what kind of restaurant we are now."
But they're learning.
On Valentine's day, Wang prepared a $50-a-person dinner featuring foods that are aphrodisiacs - "different spices and how they're put together," Lau explains.
"We were surprised how well it turned out," Lau said. "We're going to do more of these."
If you go
WHAT: Zen Forrest pan-Asian restaurant
WHERE: 4148 Rowan Road (half a block north of State Road 54), New Port Richey
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Lunch menu, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
MENU: Lunch $5.50 to $7; dinner, $7.50 to $14.50. Special pris fixe> meals from time to time.