Zen Noodle Bar & the noodle phenomenon

Noodle bars are common fare in Japan.  This I say without ever having visited Japan, but having seem both various TV documentaries and of course the wonderful Tampopo – a Japanese comedy western about food and sex, particularly the search for the perfect noodle soup.  The noodle bar first sprang up in the UK some considerable while ago – I remember one in Manchester at a time well before they became common – but they took off nationally when Wagamama took off.  From their website, complete with lower case style:

the wagamama story began in 1992 with our first restaurant opening in london’s’ bloomsbury. inspired by japanese noodle bars and asian flavours, we launched an exciting and casual dining experience within a stylish and contemporary setting

The essential components of noodle bar dining at Wagamama were fast and efficient service, a canteen-style dining experience, complete with bench-like tables, food arriving in any order rather than conventionally with starters and main courses, and the fact that it tasted good.  Menus were typically Japanese-lite, for the most part, but unquestionably appealing to our 21st century sensibilities: noodle soups laden with sliced meat and other ingredients; stir-fried noodles; the occasional Japanese style curry with steamed sticky rice, and other rice dishes.  The side orders were fun, such as gyoza dumplings, yakitori kebabs and ebi katsu prawns, all with dips.  Wagamama would sell you fresh juices or beers, but they also do free green tea if you asked nicely! 🙂

Others soon followed, including Mizu in Brentwood and Ipswich.  I mention Mizu only because at one time I used to eat there regularly for one simple reason:  when I was coming direct from a client site to a rehearsal in Chelmsford, there were no point driving all the way back to Tiptree, and the Mizu noodle bar, within sight of the M25 by the A12 junction, was handily placed.  Not as good as Wagamama, perhaps, but a quick and easy refuelling stop.  There is also within my area the North Hill Noodle Bar in Colchester.

Zen Noodle Bar in Chelmsford has been in town some while too, though for reasons unknown I never got around to eating there before.  I suggested it while in town with my mother, a devoted fan of Wagamama, and therefore happy to agree.

Before I review, it’s probably worth taking a moment to consider the essence of the noodle experience and its attendant cost – a small warning if you’ve been on Mars these past 20 years and haven’t tried this form of dining as yet.  Whichever brand you go for, it’s essentially a fast food diner based on packaged food, though for all the fact noodles are very cheap and easy to make and serve – essentially a cheap form of pasta rather than the glorious hand-made noodles you can find in Chinatown, for example – they are not as cheap to buy in these places as you might imagine (compare to fish and chips, for example.)  However, like tapas and sushi the concept is cunningly devised so you eat a lot of small plates and a bill escalator with the power to shock.  Much cheaper to do noodles at home, but then it is fun too!

Anyway, back to Zen.  This establishment clearly aims to be an elite noodle bar.  Unlike the communal dining of Wagamama, it has individual tables, well-spaced for comfort.  The menu is slightly more conventional and geared more to the Chinese, with occasional pan-Asian forays like Laksa, Beef Rendang, Tom Yum and similar.  Almost every oriental restaurant seems pan-Asian to some degree – traditions get thrown into the melting pot of global cuisine.

Our waitress was charming and possessed of a strong Far Eastern accent, though I did not have time to enquire of her national origins.  She took our drinks order and left us with an order form to fill out ourselves.  Whether this is to ensure our selections get communicated more accurately I cannot say, though they might equally have given us the little hand-held devices used by waiters in Wagamama to send the order direct to the kitchen.  The kitchen in Zen is down in the basement, with orders winched up by a good old-fashioned dumb waiter.  This made little practical difference, since the food arrived in good time, and in three visits from our waitress.

First to appear was salt-pepper squid, an old favourite and a good test of a kitchen.  Cooked badly and it’s worse than shoe leather.  Cooked well and squid can be light as a feather and fine eating.  Zen’s version, thankfully, was the latter.  Our cephalopods (of the order Teuthida, if you’re interested) were coated in a light and crisp Japanese batter in a pale cream colour, and proved remarkably tender.  As good as I can remember squidy stuff.

Next up were my main course of BBQ pork, sliced and rendered whole again with an upturned bowl’s worth of sticky rice and Chinese greens.  On the side, more extras arrived: spare ribs in capital sauce, and pork dumplings (closely akin to Nepalese momo, and presumably steamed from a bag in the freezer labelled as such.)  Both were tasty and passed the mother test.  Finally, mum’s beef rendang arrived with a flourish and a reasonable portion of rice.

One Jasmine tea and one black coffee completed our order.  Total bill: £36-odd, without service.  Toppish for what was essentially a moderate lunch, but in the order of noodle bars the quality was pretty reasonable.  I suspect at these places you pay for the brand and the decor as much as for the food, which is sad.  This is really Japanese working man’s grub, turned into restaurant fodder.

PS. Another trip to Mizu confirmed my long-held belief that it’s not a patch on Wagamama.  A chicken satay was generous but basically a production line of large chicken chunks swathed in a bottled peanut sauce.  Pad Thai was not remotely like the delicacy experienced in the finest Thai restaurants – it looked a dirty brown colour from an over-generous hand on the soy bottle for starters, and did not have the piquant nutty flavour you would expect.  And they charge for green tea, too!

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