Restaurant Review:

Pan-trend-y Asian fare

CorrespondentSeptember 8, 2006 

  • 410 Blackwell St., in the American Tobacco Historic District, Durham, 680-8888,

    Cuisine: Japanese, Thai

    Rating: 1 1/2 stars

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: contemporary Asian chic

    Service: efficient

    Recommended: smoked salmon ball, dynamite bowl, katsu don.

    Open: lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover; full bar; smoke-free (smoking permitted on the patio); accommodates children

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The first time I recall seeing the word mayo on a Japanese restaurant menu was in 1998, when I reviewed the then-recently opened Tokyo House in North Raleigh.

I had no idea then that the word was the harbinger of an explosion of sushi bars catering to American tastes with everything from blues to blue cheese. Or that the trend would spill over into other Asian cuisines, leading to a profusion of Westernized restaurants ranging from pan-Asian noodle shops to the hugely popular Thai-Japanese combination.

Tokyo House is still going strong, and owners Cha Gu and his wife Christine Li have a new venture. Last November, the couple opened Cafe Zen in the American Tobacco Historic District in Durham. The paint was barely dry on that restaurant when, this June, they opened Wild Ginger in downtown Raleigh. And they are already planning another restaurant in Wake Forest.

The owners are billing Cafe Zen as a "sushi bar & Asian bistro," which is shorthand for saying that their aim is to incorporate every imaginable contemporary Asian restaurant trend under one roof.

That includes the roof itself, which is in Durham's newest, hottest nightlife district, and under whose exposed ductwork ceilings jazz plays softly against a halogen-lit backdrop of polished stone tile tabletops and calligraphy print upholstery.

And it includes the menu, a twin bill offering of -- what else? -- Japanese and Thai food.

Both cuisines are well-represented in number and variety of dishes, but the Japanese side of the menu makes a somewhat better showing in quality. Neither, to put it bluntly, would rate among the best in its category in the Triangle.

That's not to say you can't pick and choose your way to an enjoyable experience at Cafe Zen.

If you're in the mood for Japanese, skip the beef negimaki appetizer, which tends to be overcooked. Opt instead for the house specialty smoked salmon ball, or for the dynamite bowl, a savory melange of minced clams and shiitakes served over sushi rice, topped with spicy mayo and broiled.

When it comes to the main course, a lengthy section of the menu is devoted to "hibachi entrees." Don't let that tempt you down a path that can only lead to overcooked and undersized bits of steak and seafood.

You're better off setting your course for the section devoted to noodle and rice dishes, where you'll find respectable renditions of yakisoba and udon soup. Better still is katsu don, which features a panko-crusted pork cutlet topped with scrambled egg and served over tonkatsu sauce-sweetened rice.

Sushi can be hit or miss. Hits outnumber misses by a good margin, and the selection of nigiri and maki sushi (including more than two dozen house specialty rolls) is so extensive that there's a good chance you'll never encounter any duds.

If you must have Thai, then get one of the curries. They are the only Thai dishes I've been able to find that did not disappoint. If you choose the Penang curry, avoid the duck, which can be dry and lacking in flavor, and instead go for chicken, shrimp or tofu.

Thai chicken lettuce wraps are attractively presented, but their sauce can sometimes have a bitter, burnt taste. Avoid pad thai at all costs, unless you're fond of gummy noodles in a sauce that tastes strongly of ketchup.

I haven't eaten at Wild Ginger yet, but the Raleigh restaurant is similar in style to Cafe Zen. I do know that Cafe Zen doesn't measure up to the standard set by Tokyo House, though given the owners' track record, it could improve. That is, if they haven't bitten off more than they can chew.

Greg Cox can be reached at

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