My brother and I are similar in lots of ways but also very different. I like olives, he calls them 'the devil's testes'. His hair preference flips between 'hippie commune' or 'shaved-like-Jason-Stathum', whereas I prefer a haircut that is less likely to get me fired. He is an 'all-you-can-eat' buffet aficionado, but I am usually not inclined to give my cash to a factory of food churning out the cheapest possible lowest common denominator pumped full of MSG. Not that I'm judging you understand.
And with that inference filled introduction, let me present to you the Zen Garden, a Chinese 'restaurant' sitting well within the aforementioned buffet genre. It currently tops The Childs hit list of food related treats* which is primarily due to the chocolate fountain situated at the back of the room but more on that later. Firstly, I must say that the place is done out really nicely; the decor is great, the tables are all immaculate and the staff all buzz around looking at their little iphone ordering devices like busy teenage Facebookers. The ambience is light, airy and there is loads of space which I can quite believe the place would be heaving on a Friday or Saturday night and require a serious amount of space over both available floors. I particularly enjoyed the fish in the entrance hall as they reminded me of the Chinese restaurants of my youth, although these days, I'm very much in two minds as to if that is a good thing or not. Another point of note is their child policy, kids eat at a reduced cost so long as they fit under the prescribed height limit of 150cm which I would say is comparatively generous so well done them on that.
Once in and much to The Childs annoyance, she couldn't go straight to the oozing volcano of chocolate, even though we're here on her request as the result of as a well earned treat. Instead, she must go and wander through the three fully loaded and over-flowing isles that are filled with noodles, meat (of various descriptions), vegetables, shellfish, soup and curry as well as the disappointingly ever-present chip/sausage combo. If there is one thing that you can't criticise the Zen Gardens for, it's lack of choice.
So, we have a shed load of food and a man who, if forced to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, is determined to get as much value out of his 25 quid bill as humanly possible. We started well with soup and dumplings followed by pretty much everything else.
And here lies the essence of my problem with restaurants like the Zen Garden, I simply can't believe that all these dishes were are prepared freshly and independently with no ready made components. I would love to be a fly on the wall of their kitchen and watch how, I'm sure the military precision of the prep goes on in order to provide this volume of food at the same time. Something has to suffer, and on (one of) my plate(s)
We have some great examples. On the one hand, both types of noodles were wonderfully soft and tasty with a great soy kick, whereas the 'Honey stewed BBQ Pork' was pretty nasty and tough but it was the ribs that were really tough to bare, quite literally they were too tough to eat. I was picking them out of my teeth all evening.
The dumplings on the other hand:
Were great. Presented well, they were soft and lovely for dipping - I would be really interested to know if these were bought in or made on the premises, I suspect the former but hope for the latter. Then we got on to the Teppanyaki counter which seems particularly fashionable at the moment and staffed on this occasion by a gentleman who, after only a small amount of persuasion posed for this 'in action' shot:
A master of the heated desktop, I think we can all agree. He flipped the prawns and mixed the beansprouts with ease to create the best plate of the evening. The Teppanyaki table of terrificness was supplemented with extra sauces and various condiments:
I'll be honest with you and say that although the additions of spring onion, garlic, ginger, fresh chilli, chilli oil and chilli salt were tempting**, it was the special 'Teppanyaki Sauce' that caught my attention, particularly when my chef confidently told me that he had no idea what was in it. I, of course, ordered it immediately. What was it like? Well, if you think sweet soy mixed with normal soy you might get somewhere close.
Of course, the more perceptive of you may have noticed that we've had some winners and losers through the meal so far, but pudding was what we came for and pudding was where The Child could go wild.
As well as the literal mountain of chocolate, Zen Garden has a liberal amount of healthy fruit to try and counter balance the salt and MSG gorge fest you will have just consumed. Offering fruit at this stage may have about as much success as expecting a penguin to elope to Barbados but you've got to admire the attempt. Of course, they also have plenty of cake to dive into as well.
So will I be back? Probably. I can't imagine The Child will lose her enthusiasm for 4 kilos of melted chocolate any time soon, but will I ever find out exactly how talented those responsible for putting out such a weight of food twice a day are? I'm afraid, I am less sure.
*With a Mr Whippy with a ice lolly stuck in the top coming a very close number two.
**Anyone spot a pattern here?