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Aug 31, 2008 02:28 PM

Zen Japanese Restaurant, Marlboro

This place had their Grand Opening last Saturday night.. I decided to stop in for lunch this past Wednesday. The restaurant is located in the Marlboro Diamond strip mall (there's a "Saladworks" in there) on Rt. 9 South, just past the Marlboro Diner.

Two comments before I move on to the details:

1. Replace the Z with an M.. and the N with an H.. and that's pretty much how I feel about this place.

2. Sometimes the anticipation is more exciting than the experience itself. Such was the case here.

I was psyched when I saw there was to be a Japanese restaurant opening, very close to my home. Other than Zen, there's also Tokyo Sushi on Rt. 9 North (way overpriced and not that great), and Empire Szechuan (decent Chinese food, but the sushi is just okay).

So, I stopped in at a little past 2 pm (they close from 3 to 5 pm on weekdays). Nicely decorated in subdued brown hues, I guess. I'm not really one for atmosphere. If it's clean and the food's good, that's good enough for me.

There was a bizarre structure on the ceiling that looked like the framework for a submarine.. it's supposed to be a light, but .. something like, the interior designer and the electrician had an argument, so it's in limbo right now.

So, I'm alone, and I ask to sit at the sushi bar. First thing I notice, are the sushi chefs sitting off to the side (no one behind the sushi bar) with a business man of some sort. I sit at the bar.. on a stool. I don't like stools. I'm tall, but I like my feet on the floor when I'm sitting, especially when I'm eating. That was not to be the case here. Also, I was towering over the sushi bar. Very uncomfortable.

Next, I start looking through the vast menu. Hot and cold appetizers, soups, salads (LOTS of salads.. about 13 or 14!), entrees, and 3 pages of rolls (makis).. but something seems to be missing.. what is it? Oh yeah.. where the heck are the nigiris? I go through the menu again.. nope. I call over the waitress and ask her. She doesn't know and asks the sushi chef, who gets up, comes behind the bar, and tells me there is no menu for that yet.. they forgot to print it.. but if I want to know the price of anything, just ask, and he'll tell me. Well, that's just awkward. I don't want to ask a million questions about.. how much is this, how much is that.. nor do I just want to "assume" I won't be overcharged.

So he walks back to the table, and apologizes to the person he was with for the interruption.

Gee, sorry I was inconveniencing you by coming in for lunch while you're trying to have a business meeting. At this point I almost walked out. In retrospect, I should have.

I decided to order from the lunch menu, anyway. The only option was getting a bento box. Oh well.. I decide to order a sushi and sashimi bento box. ($15) I also ask for a glass of water, and a cup of green tea.

Then I start looking at the sushi in the refrigerated case... everything looks fairly ordinary until I look closer and realize.. ALL the fish is precut! The tuna, the salmon, the hamachi, the eel, EVERYTHING is precut into little rectangular pieces. What kind of reputable sushi bar pre-slices it's fish? It was bizarre. I've been in good sushi bars that got really busy (which this place wasn't), and they never cut their fish in advance.

At this point I'm just hoping for the best. First comes my miso soup, included with the meal. Okay, decent, nothing to write home about. Then comes my green tea... leaves in a strainer sitting in a cup. I think to myself "I bet I'm getting charged for this". I've never gotten charged for tea at a sushi bar. Well, until now. That cup of BITTER tea cost me $3.00.

I watched the sushi chef prepare my meal. He didn't seem very friendly, so I decided not to ask questions or try to interact... although I was dying to know why all the fish was precut. The "sashimi" was simply a rectangle of fish cut in half. Whee.

So, I get the bento box. A salad, with that ubiquitous gloppy orange dressing on top. Okay. Two veggie gyozas.. pretty tasty for what they were. An assortment of vegetable tempura. Light, crispy, not overly greasy. The onion ring was pretty good. Some of the vegetables I couldn't identify, but I ate them anyway. A ball of white rice. Tempura dipping sauce on the side. And an assortment of sushi and sashimi. The usual stuff. Shrimp, tuna, salmon, whitefish. One piece of hamachi (tough), and one piece of "white tuna".. I think. And of course, 4 diminutive pieces of California roll. That's the problem with ordering a standard sushi/sashimi lunch.. I get stuff I normally wouldn't order on my own (Except for the hamachi). To their credit, the salmon was buttery and smooth. That was probably the highlight. The rice on which the fish was lying was tiny. Maybe about the size of a 2x3 Lego brick. Likewise, the pieces of fish were also small.

The meal filled me up. I was thinking of trying a Spicy Tuna roll, but I didn't want to inconvenience the sushi chef again, so I used my 15% coupon (which basically covered the cost of the tea) and asked for a takeout menu... just to see if they had some.. which of course they didn't. I was going to ask if they had a website, but decided I didn't really care one way or the other, at that point.

I MIGHT consider going back in a couple of months.. once they have the nigiri menu printed up. I know better than to order tea.. and I'll look to see if they still precut their fish.. in which case, I won't be staying.

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  1. MarlboroMan, you mentioned that you went to Tokyo Sushi (the one where Old Country Buffet was?) I didn't realize that they opened. How was that place? And how was Konbu?

    3 Replies
    1. re: wench31

      Oops on the name. The place I meant was Kyoto (next to That's Amore.. dumb name, but great food.. Italian, of course). "Tokyo Steakhouse and Sushi Buffet" is not open yet. I went to Konbu once (forgot about that, that's another place near my house).. also way overpriced, and I wasn't impressed. My wife couldn't find anything to eat on the menu, and it was FREEZING in there.

      Last night I had my birthday dinner at Oyako Tso's (which I'll post a review on later today), which was sublime.

      1. re: MarlboroMan

        "...(next to That's Amore.. dumb name, but great food.. Italian, of course).

        I don't eat sushi and have no intention of going to "Meh." but I couldn't let the above statement pass. I must disagree with you about That's Amore. The food we had the one time we had dinner there was mediocre at best. Also, as I mentioned sometime back when discussing this restaurant on another thread, our waiter could have used a forklift to bring our main courses to our table because the plates were the size of flying saucers. While there may be some who find such ridiculously out-sized portions appealing, they only succeed in totally turning me off!

        1. re: RGR

          Well, we ate there once. I remember we all liked our meals. I also remember the plates were so large that 4 of us had trouble fitting them on our small table, so I thought that was rather ridiculous.

          Of course, we haven't been back since, so maybe that says something. My wife loves Italian food. I have to be in the mood for it, which isn't very often. Combine that with the fact that there's so many Italian restaurants around here, so we can try something different every time.. so we don't have to eat at the same place twice.

    2. The original comment has been removed
      1. Luckily, I have to say I had a great experience at Zen. I've driven by this place many times before, but never had the time to stop by. I have to say, I'm definitely glad I did. My wife and I were greeted by friendly staff and our servers were very attentive and provided great recommendations.
        As for the food, it was ABSOLUTELY delicious. I've tasted Japanese food from both coasts and at the most popular of restaurants. I can sincerely say that Zen is MY first pick for asian/Japanese cuisine!

        We'll be back, definitely! Thanks!

        2 Replies
        1. re: chrisrosetta

          Welcome to Chowhound, chrisrosetta! Can you give us some details of what you ate, and what you liked about these dishes?

          1. re: RGR

            Sorry to hear about your experience there .....Just a few miles south on Rt 9 just before I-195 is Sushi by KAZU across from the Ivy league restaurant in far the best Sushi restaurant in the area for sure..


        2. MarlboroMan- thanks for the review. We often pass ZAN (or 'MEH') and have wondered how it was. It seems like there is a new Asian fusion/sushi place popping up every month. We'll skip this one and stick with Mazu in Aberdeen or Arirang in Sayreville. I've heard good things about Wasabi in East Brunswick; we will probably try that on our next sushi night out.

          3 Replies
          1. re: njchowgal

            You're welcome.. there's also yet ANOTHER Japanese Fusion place coming on Rt. 18.. I remember seeing the signs.. northbound side.. maybe around East Brunswick.

            I still enjoy Makkoli from time to time.. but next time I'm hankering, I'm either going to try Wasabi in East Brunswick, which I've also heard good things about.. or this Sushi by Kazu place in Howell.

            1. re: MarlboroMan

              MarlboroMan- update on Wasabi in EB. I have been twice since my last post, it was that good. I might go again tomorrow. I guess I am on a sushi kick.. i don't know what kind of rolls you like, but we especially enjoyed a cali roll wrapped in eel and avocado. We asked for it specially made both times, and were glad be did. I call it a California Dragon Roll. The eel there is great, no funny taste and just the right crispiness. Let me know if you go to Kazu in Howell.

              1. re: MarlboroMan

                Yes, it is northbound on Rt 18 in East Brunswick near the Wendy's.
                It used to be Jewelry store (Greenfield Jeweler or something like that I think).

                And what's the deal with all these asian fusion crap, can't we just get an authentic Japanese place for once?

            2. ZEN Rt 9 Marlboro NJ is the same owners as KOBE Rt 35 in Holmdel NJ.
              Their menu is creative - Bon Jovi Roll - and the portions HUGE, you have to pay for a pot of tea, my car always ends up down the road at Kyoto Rt 9 in Englishtown NJ

              6 Replies
              1. re: shabbystorm

                I ate lunch at Kyoto a few months ago, as it is about 3 minutes from my house. I was severely underwhelmed. Seemed really ordinary to me. Maybe you have to be a regular, because some guy next to me was raving about the place.. said it was one of only two places he ate sushi at in NJ.

                1. re: MarlboroMan

                  Signage out in front of Zen Japanese Restaurant indicates that it's under new ownership.. based on this, I'm willing to give it another go; provided the fish isn't pre-sliced.

                  1. re: MarlboroMan

                    Me too, saw the new official sign, and the hanging sign out front.
                    Went in there yesterday.
                    Same menu.
                    Same young woman, daughter of the original owner was there....
                    Let us know once you give it another try.

                    1. re: shabbystorm

                      i noticed a coupon in savy shopper with the new name. buy one get one entrees on mondays... i wonder if that includes sushi. if that is the case, i would be willing to check it out.

                      1. re: njchowgal

                        I saw those coupons, too. Then I saw some for a "new" Japanese restaurant, named Arisu.. same coupons as Zen.. same misspelling of Gyoza (misspelled as "Gyoga"), same location as Zen.. so apparently it's reopening as Arisu and the signage hasn't gone up yet.