Restaurant Zén Houses Three Floors of Utopia
We’ve officially crossed the halfway point of 2019 and my personal list of tragically good meals that are set to blow up your wallet has accumulated to a ridiculous number. Introducing Zén (the tasting menu and only one available will set you back at a whopping $450 even before taxes), the newest addition that takes the cake. There will be wine of course, that high-spirited choice chalking up another $250 per imbiber. The initial capital investment can be a tad brutal to the spirit, but I daresay that there is no need to manage expectations here. The dazzling rewards far outweigh even the most cynical guests who have preposterous forecasts. Here’s how Restaurant Zén takes your money from right under your nose, without even so much of a sniffle, frown nor word of regret.
First, it’s the entrance. No opening of doors on your own accord, you ring the doorbell and the room opens up to you. You are exactly where the restaurant wants you to be—that is the ground floor where a group of armchairs are bunched up just within a stone’s throw from the open kitchen. It’s a befitting entry for a meal of sizeable fortune and immediately you feel at home in this maisonette’s ‘foyer’. Here, you are treated to five exquisite snacks starting with the beer poached crustacean enrobed in smetana (sour cream) with a glistening crown of wild trout roe. It’s pure magic and sends instant shivers down your spine. Vendace roe from Kalix in Northern Sweden is reinterpreted as a traditional snack of Råraka (hash brown) in the next morsel, pickled onion and beetroot lending a favourable acidity while the finishing of grated nutmeg and vanilla tincture nudges it into the extraordinary territory.
The restaurant performs transitory moves like a veteran poker player, guiding you first towards the front of the kitchen where the ‘ingredient box’ is introduced with a detailed account of each ingredient. Voice recording might come in useful if you can’t commit everything to memory. You are then ushered into the kitchen under the close guidance of Zén’s head chef Tristan Farmer, with a flute of Jacquesson Cuvee 742 extra brut in hand. Tristan accounts for the staggering 19-strong brigade in the kitchen, and most of the dishes are finished tableside with most chefs getting the opportunity to interact with the diners. “At Zén, we teach the guys to be themselves,” expressing the need to be personable while they dole out luxuries to hungry diners.
We are served a final canapé of onion veloute littered with almond silvers and spruced up with liquorice. Apparently one of Bjorn Frantzen’s all-time favourite flavour combinations, I swallow a nervous gulp disguising my slight dislike for the herbaceous root.
The 8-course dinner menu commences properly on the second floor. White linen table cloth, low ambient lighting and Japanese armchairs made by the best wood whisperers complete the timeless and classy vista. Every two-top table is flanked by a pale-wood trolley where chefs and servers congregate in flocks to finish the dish much to your amusement.
First, a starter of red deer tartare hailing from New Zealand topped with Zén prestige caviar and finished with rivulets of cold-pressed argan oil and brown butter. It is dressed strategically with shiso flowers and Australian finger lime to highlight the exquisite savouriness of the caviar. Alcoholic beverage pairing traverses the globe starting with the Yamahai Jikomai from Japan which exhibits strong nutty characteristics with slight savoury advances.
My reaction to the next dish is priceless. One instant glance over from the garçon checking in on us and he would have recognised that unabashed love-struck look on my face. He retreats away into the darkness as I confess my adoration for the marriage of Corton Charlemagne 2007 Grand Cru with the triumph of a dish of grilled marron, yuzu koshu, clarified butter emulsion and sansho peppers. Oh, what artistry! The bright acidity and backbone of buttered popcorn in all its glory. We clink glasses and laugh quietly at our good fortune.
From there on out, Zén’s got it in the bag. Precise and complex little curios include the Akamutsu harbouring a luxe dosage of Hokkaido bafun uni, glazed with ponzu and finished with 20 year aged black mirin. This lolls in koshihikari rice cooked in walnut milk and chicken fat that is unctuous, raw and earthy all at once. Finally, a pool of delicate creamy white asparagus lends a helping hand to the dish scaling the pinnacle of virtue.
Chawanmushi crowded with several delicacies comes next. Lauded with king crab and foie gras, it’s the dashi made from hot smoked pork cured for a 100 days and katsuoboshi that hijacks the act. Dinner continues on a high with barbecued pigeon with interceptions of wasabi for that Japanese touch. You saw through those with ease with your Swedish mora knife of choice, handpicked for their handsome handprinted patterns from a wooden case.
An old stager, the French Toast ‘grande tradition’ concludes the train of savouries. It’s a one bite wonder of sourdough stuffed with caramelised onions and parmesan custard. The ‘pain perdu’ sings with the added sultry funk from clouds of black truffle threads.
The only virtuous course that emerges from a long string of indulgent courses is the dessert, that cloudy judgement based on our irrelevant association with the colour green for nourishment. Sea buckthorn sorbet is teamed with blue and green tea, and garnished with crystallised seaweed. Buttery cubes of matcha green tea crumble are all in there, and it works out just under a thousand calories—a plateful, conjuring a smile that neglects how much time is required at the gym the following next day. Finally, rhubarb is flambéed within an inch of your hair in Balinese arak. It is served alongside kitschy heart-shaped waffles and salted Hokkaido Milk Ice Cream in a deep puddle of roasted coffee vanilla oil.
At this point, you’re sated, emotionally immobilised from the overwhelming offerings. But no, petit fours take you to the third level of the building where the strangelets continue in droves from sep ganache-filled macarons to sea buckthorn jelly and black garlic fudge dusted with yuzu fish powder. You stop listening and judging, only politely stopping in between gregarious laughter and sips of your sauterne to stuff whatever you can manage into your gullet. After all, the $450 price tag does evoke some FOMO. So loosen those waistbands! Schedule the next few weeks for living like a pauper on economy rice.
For what it’s worth (in which case, Zén is worth a whole month’s salary), dining at Zén might require the help of a food dictionary, especially with the smorgasbord of fine ingredients and techniques that are showcased. However, the highs derived and the audible exclamations heard all around are self-explanatory of its cumbersome price tag. With three floors of utopia blazing a trail for fine dining in Singapore, I can’t help but love every single minute of it.