Zen Palate Opens Location in Midtown

I must be honest and admit my Meatless Monday adventures have turned into more of a meatless-one-meal-a-week kind of thing as of late. With all this talk about rising meat prices thanks to the Midwest drought… and now rumors of a worldwide bacon shortage surfacing (oh horror of horrors!), I’ve been meatin’-it-up wherever the opportunity arises and with no shame. Maybe I shouldn’t believe the hype… but I keep buying roast beef cold cuts in place of my usual cheese snacks just in case it all gets too expensive, so that blows my meatless days to smithereens. That said, I’m still trying to get a vegetarian meal in my belly here and there for some food variety. And we also gotta give some ML love to Lunch’ers like LuxeSmurf, and others who are looking for vegetarian options from time to time.

I had heard rumors a month ago via Gothamist (who reported from the Zagat blog) about a Zen Palate opening in Midtown. This vegetarian restaurant has had rough times with closures in the past, but still seemed to have a decent following. I checked out the online menu to see if Zen Palate’s prices are under the ML price threshold of $10. Some soups and sandwiches made the cut… but I was skeptical and frankly really scurred after I encountered some serious snark about Zen Burger from way back when, which was a short-lived Midtown offshoot from the same folks.

I was even more doubtful about the restaurant when I arrived and looked inside — the decor seemed a bit fancy for ML styles. But… the guy in there had a mohawk-ponytail?? so that was a definite plus. Then I noticed the $8.95 Value Express Lunch Specials that weren’t listed on the website’s menu that includes an entree plus a drink. Upon reflection after my meal, I saw the same meal would cost close to $15 in the evenings, so if you want to try the place out, now is the time to do it.

Too often, I get drawn into these lunch specials because they’re the only thing on the menu that keeps me under a tenner. And usually, I’m sorely disappointed by the quality, and almost always disappointed by the volume of food in the meal. I truly thought Zen Palate was going the be one of those sad, sad lunches. But it was too late to turn back. This isn’t a short trek for me, and the lunch hour clock was ticking. PLUS I had to eat in the restaurant because it’s far enough away from my office, I feared my meal wouldn’t hold up on the hike back. I really had no choice at this point. (I should note — if you eat in the restaurant, you’re going to be pushing the $10 limit if you give a tip.)

The staff was friendly and seemed to care about the food without being pretentious at all. One of the servers recommended the Rose Petals option, which meant absolutely nothing to me, but neither did the rest of the ethereal menu with items like “Sweet and Sour Sensation”, “Eggplant Zentastic”, and “Shredded Melody”. But staff explained that the main attraction in the Rose Petals was soy crepes with a ginger sauce, and that it was really tasty and a favorite among customers. OK, whatever you say, said I. I chose the rose petals and the green iced tea to go along with it.

And while this dish probably wouldn’t get the approval of devout carnivores, I enjoyed it because I had the opportunity to taste new foods. The soy crepes were like nothing I’ve tried before. The best way I can describe… it’s a crunchy version of a regular crepe with a slight flavor of french toast and a detectable amount of greasiness but without being too heavy. The sauce also had ingredients I’d never experienced — wolfberries (or goji berries) were not just added in to flavor the sauce, but the whole berries were there! I assumed it was the wolfberries that gave the dish a slight sweetness and tang, and there was also a hint of ginger. All of this topped a bed of steamed cabbage, carrots, snow peas, and mushrooms.

The rice was kind of cool too. It was a mixed bag of white and brown rices and grains. It had little flavor without the sauce, but the consistency was good.

To top the whole thing off, there were a few yummy spring rolls with the plate. They were crispy and fresh, but the flavor was fairly predictable. I thought the soy + vinegar sauce for dipping was nice, too.

Look, I know haters gonna hate. It’s vegetarian. It’s an otherwise overpriced restaurant that throws out some half-ass midday specials just cheap enough to get us onboard. But I will say that I never got the feeling that I was being completely fucked over like I normally do with these kinds of lunch specials. The staff was enthusiastic, the portion size didn’t make me frown, and I experienced some new stuff. I was pretty happy with the experience.

I know lots of meat lovers won’t ever give Zen Palate a shot. Sacrilege! But if you ever do want to try it, it seems like lunch is much cheaper than dinner. Happy hour also looks decent, with cheap(er) appetizers, $3 draft Sapporos, and discount wine and cocktails. Hmmmmm…..

Zen Palate Murray Hill, 516 3rd Avenue, 212 685-6888

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