A busy plaza in north Scottsdale recently became home to one of the Valley’s newest hot spots – Zen Culinary. The buildings modern exterior hints at the chic, lush vibe patrons will find upon entering. Owner Rachel McAuley spared no expense in design and decor, transforming what used to be a Mexican eatery into a a space that exudes stylish harmony. The restaurant is gorgeous, the lush ambiance is enhanced with warm lighting and shades of deep reds. Soothing waterfalls and Asian-inspired art pieces build a true east meets west atmosphere, and that cultural vibe carries over to the menu.
Diners will be wowed at the eye-catching presentations and the fusion-style offerings blending the freshest ingredients and authentic preparation techniques. From the appetizers to the cocktails, Zen Culinary is a feast for the eyes…and the taste buds.
The menu ranges from sushi and sashimi, to filets and ribs. My dining companion and I decided to start with the Dragon Balls, a mix of minced pork and shrimp with a crispy panko coating, served with a duo of dipping sauces. These golden-fried orbs were addictive, neither the pork nor shrimp dominated, but instead blended perfectly for a meaty surf-and-turf appeal. The sauces were spectacular, a sweet chili soy and a wasabi aioli. Both have delicious merit individually but were outstanding when mixed together; the creamy bite of the aioli with the warm sweetness of the chili sauce made the perfect match for the salty, meaty, crunch of the Dragon Balls. This was a great appetizer to wet our whistles for the next course.
Speaking of the wetting your whistle, Zen Culinary is shaking up some vibrant cocktails with a Pan-Asian flare – like the Muay-Tai; a fresh take on a Mai Tai using white rum, Baiju, dry curacao, rich tamarind syrup and lime juice, finished with a dark rum float. This inspired cocktail was strong and delicious, the tamarind syrup offering a unique tartness to the classic tropical drink. For the second round, I asked our server to bring me a pretty, colorful drink that would photograph well (because photogenic food and drink is what I live for) and he came back with a stunner – the Blue Hawaiian. Wow, that drink was incredible to look at and to sip, a blend of rums, coconut cream, and blue curacao.
I was so pleased with our server’s drink selection that I decided to let him chose our entrees as well. He did good, really good, and sent out the Chef’s whim sushi selection of the night, a soft shell crab roll. I love soft shell crab and when it’s panko crusted and joined by crisp cukes, wrapped in seaweed it becomes otherworldly spectacular. The rolls had an accompanying sauce, but they were so dang delicious no further embellishment was needed. I could have stopped with these rolls but I’m so glad I didn’t because out came the Coconut Curry Custard. This was a dish unlike any other I’ve had, made with Mekong basa (catfish native to the Mekong river in Southeast Asia) egg, basil and red curry and served in a whole coconut. It’s all blended together to make the “custard” and the result is a soft-textured stew that’s served with steamed white rice. As I said it was unlike anything I have ever had before, and I can’t wait to have it again.
Now, take me up on this next bit of advice: when you visit Zen Culinary, (and visit you should), order the Pineapple Fried Rice. This fried rice is a masterpiece and looks just as amazing as it tastes. Fluffy jasmine rice is cooked with pineapple, yellow curry, golden raisins, cashews, herbs, and a generous amount of shrimp, The medley is tossed together then served in a giant pineapple boat. It’s awesome and a sight to behold when the behemoth tropical fruit arrives at your table, piled high with vibrantly-hued yellow rice, studded with so much goodness, you won’t know where to dig in first. There are so many flavors and textures going in this rice dish but they all play together in sweet, savory, umami harmony. The portion is huge, so bring plenty of friends to share or expect to bring home lots of leftovers.
Desserts are a delight as well. We ordered the towering slice of chocolate cake, studded with malted chocolate beads and the sticky rice with mango. The cake was everything a good piece of chocolate cake should be – moist, rich and sinful; the sticky rice is perfect if you’re into less cloying desserts, the perfectly ripened fresh mango slices acting almost like a palate cleanser after devouring the decadent chocolate cake.
Zen Culinary is beautiful – the food is top-notch, the atmosphere hypnotic with warmth and ambiance and the staff is friendly and inviting. McAuley and her team are blending all the elements of a perfect eatery, making everything about Zen Culinary harmonious and well,…zen.