Zen Café seems an odd moniker for an eatery situated in a busy nightclub. After all, it's not as though one is likely to achieve satori while contemplating hip-hugger pants and flashing-LED high-heels. Perusing the menu, it's clear Zen Café cares as much about being authentically Zen as they do about being authentically Asian-which is to say, not at all.
No, this is one of those trendy fusion restaurants, whipping together a blend of Asian, American, Mexican and tropical-island cuisines into a mostly interesting array of dishes. Located inside On Broadway, the downtown nightclub, Zen Café has an atmosphere that would seem more at home in New York or Los Angeles.
On Broadway takes up two large floors of a former bank, with the Zen Café occupying a portion of the top floor. The bottom floor is strictly a nightclub, with some really over-the-top, ornately decorated theme rooms that are well worth a look after dinner.
The top floor is also part of the nightclub, with the restaurant surrounding a good-sized dance floor and bar. Local music-from jazz musicians, cover bands and DJs-is performed in the early evening before the club starts hopping.
The best nights to go are when jazz is featured, because the musicians have free rein to play whatever they want. Consequently, you'll often hear some really great music while you dine-a rarity in San Diego.
The dining room is cavernous, with colored lights playing upon the walls, and sheets of fabric stretched between giant columns. The overall effect is transportive, making me feel like I'm far away from San Diego, hanging out behind the scenes while people prepare for a glamorous party; it's a festive place, with the anything-goes attitude extending to the food.
One half of the menu is focused on Pacific Rim-influenced appetizers, salads, meat, fish and vegetarian dishes. The other half is strictly sushi. While the Pacific Rim menu reads well enough, I'm such a sucker for sushi-I can't help but find that part of the menu more interesting.
Like most non-traditional sushi spots, Zen Café's focus is on unusual sushi rolls. I've tried most of them and, for the most part, have found them imaginative and flavorful. The rolls are divided into three types: Classic Rolls (staples like California, spicy tuna and Philadelphia), Signature Rolls (spicy shrimp tempura, spicy garlic lobster, special pizza, and the Godzilla tempura roll) and the Chef's Signature Specialty Rolls (where the chefs really get creative).
A good example of this reckless abandon is Chef Carson's Summer of Love Roll, with blackened ahi, avocado, cucumber, mango salsa and sweet lemon oil. The result is very light and fresh-tasting, with all the disparate flavors coming together to form a sum greater than the parts.
Other good choices from the chef's rolls include Chef Koba's Ambitious Tuna Salad Roll and Chef George's Seal the Deal Roll. The former, filled with tuna salad, snow crab and cucumber and topped with fresh salmon and green onion, is a sophisticated presentation of tuna salad. The latter is stuffed with tempura fried shrimp, ebi (boiled shrimp) and Maine lobster and is a rare instance in which the shellfish flavor is quite prominent in the roll, not getting lost in the rice and sauce.
If I have a complaint, it's that some of the rolls are a little busy-the Godzilla tempura roll, for example, has so much going on that the flavors become hard to distinguish. Some of the appetizers also don't quite hit it, such as the duck confit potstickers with soy-mushroom jus. The jus is tasty, but there's too much of it, which makes the potstickers soggy. There's also no real duck flavor to speak of.
These quibbles aside, Zen Café is worth checking out, if for no other reason than the uniqueness of the setting and the interesting takes on sushi.
Zen Café is open Friday and Saturday evening from 6 to 11 p.m. Reservations are recommended. Prices are on the high side, with the fancy sushi rolls going for around $14 a pop, and entrées fetching between $20 and $35 a plate.
Also, be advised that there is a dress code-no shorts or T-shirts allowed, and if you're wearing jeans, they must be in good condition and not excessively baggy. That's the price you pay for hanging out with the beautiful people.