Chef Michael Bongiorno’s menu at Zanyu Asian Noodles takes diners on a culinary tour
As you stroll among the shops and restaurants of Lafayette Village, an upscale retail complex in North Raleigh modeled after a European village, a new restaurant catches your eye. Curious, you take a peek through the storefront window of Zanyu Asian Noodles.
It appears to be a counter-service eatery, and all the people working behind the counter are wearing black T-shirts with the restaurant’s logo. The dining area is compact and narrow, but a sheltered patio with a view of the “village lawn” expands the seating possibilities considerably. The look is clean and contemporary — just a few white paper lanterns overhead, and poster-size black and white photos of a restaurant kitchen in action.
It occurs to you that this is the sort of carefully put-together look that could easily be cloned. You’re inclined to dismiss the place as just another chain restaurant looking to capitalize on a hot food trend.
That would be a mistake.
Zanyu is owned by Michael Bongiorno, a Johnson and Wales-trained chef whose globetrotting career includes 15 years as an executive chef for Hyatt International in half a dozen Asian countries, from Japan to Malaysia.
Understandably travel-weary, and seeking a suitable place to raise a family, Bongiorno and his wife decided to settle down in Wake Forest and open a restaurant in neighboring North Raleigh. Zanyu is his first restaurant, but all those years in the corporate world evidently rubbed off on his design sense.
Clearly, the experience also paid rich dividends into Bongiorno’s bank of culinary skills. His one-page menu takes you on a concise tour of the countries where has has cooked.
No matter where you choose to join Bongiorno on the tour, the destination will be richly rewarding. Set sail for Japan, and you’ll pull into port at a pork belly miso ramen soup that’s on a par with the best ramen bowls you’ll find in these parts. You’ll see why it’s one of Zanyu’s two best-selling noodle dishes. It features toothsome ribbons of confit pork belly, a perfect ajitsuke egg, tofu pouches stuffed with sushi rice, fish cake and gratifyingly chewy noodles in a silky pork broth enriched with miso and garnished with a sheet of nori.
The other best-seller, and no wonder, is khao soi noodles: egg noodles in a northern Thai red curry riddled with chicken, fried shallots and pickled mustard greens. The crowning touch, literally and figuratively, is a tangle of crispy wonton noodles floating on the soup. Khao soi is a moderately spicy dish as presented, but you can crank up the heat if you like with the roasted chile sauce that’s served alongside.
Craving something spicier still? Then chart your course for Malaysian curry laksa, whose chile oil-spattered surface signals ample Scoville satisfaction. The yellow and red coconut curry soup packs a respectable kick, but it’s not so potent that you won’t appreciate the subtleties of tender tatters of chicken breast and delicate cubes of fried tofu so light that they float.
Toward the mild end of the flavor spectrum are chicken shoyu ramen and creamy vegan shoyu noodles. Mildest of all are cold somen noodles, which you’ll find among the handful of listings under the Something Chilled heading. Served plain in a bowl of ice water (yes, with actual ice cubes), the noodles are meant to be dipped in the accompanying bowl of dashi dipping sauce. Small dishes of wasabi, ginger and grated daikon are also provided to tweak the flavor. Admittedly, the presentation caught me by surprise, but it’s easy to understand how the dish is a popular way to beat the summer heat in Japan.
Noodles may get star billing at Zanyu, but they’re by no means the only attraction. Under the Izakaya Plates heading, you’ll find a dozen or so shareable small plates that exhibit a level of skill every bit as high as the noodle dishes.
Harumaki vegetable spring rolls, shatter-crisp cylinders served with a chile lime vinaigrette dipping sauce, are exemplary. So are pork belly buns and Sriracha mayo shrimp buns. And if you’re lucky enough to be there when lobster buns are offered as a special, be advised that the $8 splurge (two for $15) nets you more lobster — hefty chunks of it, in yuzu kosho mayonnaise — than you would have thought possible to cram into a steamed bun.
Ebi sunomono — lightly vinegared shrimp scattered across a salad of cucumbers and wakame seaweed — is a still life in an earthenware bowl. Green beans, tossed in a light wasabi yuzu dressing, drizzled with sesame oil, and spangled with black and white sesame seeds, are almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
Zanyu is technically a counter-service restaurant, though an eager-to-please wait staff go the extra mile, bringing food to your table, even pacing courses and bussing tables. The experience comes so close to full table service that it deserves a designation of its own. Let’s call it hybrid service.
That said, there’s nothing hybrid about the food. It’s the real deal.
Zanyu Asian Noodles
8450 Honeycutt Road, Raleigh
Rating: 4 stars
Atmosphere: compact, contemporary
Noise level: low
Recommended: green beans, ebi sunomono, steamed buns, pork belly ramen, khao soi noodles
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
Other: beer, wine and sake; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.