Hang onto your whole-wheat hat. Banish all thoughts of vegetarian meals as being nondescript lumps of white-ish unknown substances and gelatinous goo over brown rice. The recently opened Zen Palate in the Princeton Shopping Center on Harrison Street brings sophistication to vegetarian cuisine and swings wide the door to a whole new world.
With two locations in New York City, this Princeton newcomer is an intriguing amalgam of formal restaurant and a fast food decor. The tables are simple counter-top white and the large menu board above the bar seating suggests a quick stop rather than a leisurely meal. However, the service is not rushed and the staff, imported from the New York locales for the initial “getting started” hump period, is friendly and helpful.
We arrived a little before 6 p.m. on a Saturday and were seated immediately. Our timing was impeccable because a mere hour or so later the wait for a table of four was 45 minutes to an hour.
The menu is zen-like in its simplicity, a good thing for novices like us for whom the offerings were rife with exotic ingredients. Who knew there is something called red rice? We do now and it’s very tasty. Starters include familiar soups, wanton, hot and sour and miso, and are served in very generous bowls ($3.25-$3.75). In fact, banish too the old notion that vegetarian eating is skimpy eating. Salads ($5.25 to $7.50 for the Sweet & Spicy Tropical Salad) offer different tastes with tofu, kale, and seaweed — with a bowl of soup a salad would be a substantial meal.
But it’s the appetizers that begin the intrigue. We shared an order of the steamed, green tea vegetable dumplings ($6.25) and were rewarded with a taste at once familiar and strange. The white dumplings one gets at all oriental restaurants were here a lush green and had a distinct flavor of their own. The mixed vegetable filling had heft. We had to leave the tempting sweet yam fries for another visit but were able to sample the taro spring rolls and the peanut basil moo-shu rolls as the sides to our entrees.
From there we moved to the difficult decision of entrees. The variety of cuisines looked like a United Nations of food. You are offered English fare with Shepherd’s Pie Croquettes ($9.50), mashed potato croquettes filled with minced veggies in a plum/tomato sauce; Italian with Vegi Lasagna ($9.95); Mexican with Tex-Mex Moo Shu ($10.25), kidney beans, soy protein and barley wrapped in spinach crepes with guacamole; and old fashioned American comfort food with a Veggie Loaf of tofu, chestnut croquettes over noodles with tomato sauce ($9.95). We opted for the Taste of Malay ($10.95) which were soy crepes wrapped in seaweed in a spicy Thai sauce and Rose Petals (9.75) also soy crepes with wolfberry seeds and garden vegetables in a ginger sauce.
Nothing looks like what it’s made of. I could swear the lady next to me had medallions of beef over her broccoli but I suspect it was the sesame medallions of wheat gluten. Entrees are coded with symbols denoting dairy, dairy protein, and eggs. Beverages are also on the exotic side. With names like Mind Over Muddle, Depth Recharge, and Virtual Buddha, the fragrant herbal brews can be had hot or cold. (Zen Palate is BYOB, but we would recommend you keep your bottle at home — tea is the appropriate beverage to accompany these meals.)
Also available are multiple sandwich offerings ($7.25-$8.50) and rice or noodle dishes. These range from $7.50 to $8.50 and are served veggies or as hearty soups.
Desserts are pies and cakes, some made with tofu but all made without refined sugar. These range from $4.95 to $5.25 for the chocolate raspberry cake. Our tofu-honey pie was a close cousin to cheesecake.
Seating for three or four people is also available in a bar area and is a good alternative when the wait is long. Reservations are taken for parties of six or more. The venue is kid-friendly; attire is casual. This is not a romantic date place and not really conducive to an “impress the big boss” dinner, unless you know she’s a vegetarian.
Started in 1990 by a group of vegetarian Buddhists in New York, Zen Palate is based on a philosophy explained on its website, which also offers a recipe or two.
Zen Palate has recharged the notion of “health food” by using the culinary flourishes of the fusion trend to kick it up several notches. So be gone antiquated notions of tofu belonging to aging hippies and veggies being vague accompaniments. We may not have reached Nirvana but we were smiling contentedly on the way out.
Zen Palate, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-279-9888. Open seven days a week: Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; www.zenpalate.com.