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Oct 12, 2012 07:43 AM

Chowdown at Zen Peninsula : Report

Ten Chowhounds descended upon Zen Peninsula in Millbrae tonight in search of good eats, in particular Stuffed Chicken with Sticky Rice, this month's dish of the month. I'll make some notes about that dish once someone creates a subthread at this post (hint, hint):

When we were seated, they gave us a standard menu. There were also one-page Chinese-only menus that we never got around to translating. The standard menu was missing a bunch of stuff from the website, so we inquired and were given the set of their picture friendly dinner specials listed at:

They kept pushing the crab on us, but we declined. We ordered almost exclusively off the pictured menu. DaveMP was kind enough to document for me all of the dishes we got:

Zen's Roast Pork (pork neck) with peanut
BBQ Pork (char siu
)Marinated platter (five things including tofu; duck tongue; pork feet or snout)

Scallop in egg white
Eggplant w/ garlic in clay pot
Chicken stuffed w/ sticky rice
Lettuce in shrimp paste
Golden Kabocha fries w/ salty egg
Smoked seabass

Fortune cookies
Black sesame soup
Mango flavored mochi

The items I had a chance to eat on the marinated platter were all very good, and with an entire meal to get through, I think the nibbles it provided were a perfect size to split amongst 10 people. The standout item on the marinated platter for me and others was the duck tongue. Good flavor and firm yet not rubbery texture. The back of the tongue has a bone, but it's not a big deal. I'd had an unpleasant duck tongue experience at New Gold Medal a while back, so was happy to see this item can be excellent when prepared properly.

Great roast pork. It had a thick sauce interspersed with little (soy?) beans. Not sure if this was a mental thing, but the sauce reminded me a bit of baked beans!

Cysna had warned us that the scallop in egg white would be a subtle dish, and she was right. Compared to many of the complex flavored dishes, this one is all about the salt, egg, and texture. I'd recommend it, but you should be careful which dish to precede it with.

The lettuce in shrimp paste, at least the portion i had, tasted like braised lettuce in garlic sauce. No notes of seafood at all. It was a fine dish as is, but we were wondering if profiling lead them to skip the bulk of the shrimp paste.

The smoked seabass filet, at $35, seemed pretty expensive, but it was a really big piece. The piece I had was overbearingly salty, and in retrospect, might have been good if cut with some rice, which we hadn't ordered.

My favorite dish was probably the kabocha fries. The crust adhered well to the squash, giving a uniform and crisp chew to each piece. The salty egg yolk was excellent too. I'm not a huge fan of the sulfurous egg yolk flavor you get in things like dan tat (custard tarts), so the salty egg yolk was a special treat.

Upon request from the one Chinese person at the table, we were given a complimentary dessert, the mango flavored mochi ... and some plastic wrapped fortune cookies. He then asked why we weren't given the black sesame dessert they'd told us about earlier, so they brought that out afterwards. Good stuff, and not overly sweet way to end a fun meal.

It was great to finally connect, in person, with other Chowhounds. I had a really good time. I'd encourage other new community members to join the yahoo lists, and not to be shy about attending these events:

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  1. Hi All,
    I was part of the Chow-Down crowd at Zen restaurant last night. It was my first Chow-Down, and I hope after these comments, I won't be taken off the invitee list, because I enjoyed myself very much. I loved meeting the group and discussing food minutiae ad-nauseum, which is my very favorite past-time and which bores most of my friends. However, in all honesty, apart from the company, I would've enjoyed Panda Express more. The two pork appetizers were good; the marinated platter yielded about two tiny bites for me, after disposing of bones and gristle. The kabocha fries were tasty and not greasy, and the scallop egg dish was flavorful enough for my tastes. I didn't miss the shrimp paste on the braised lettuce, since I'd not had that before, and to have some greenery was refreshing. The sea bass was overcooked, and too salty (as mentioned), and the stuffed chicken would've been good if advertised as sticky rice with not crisp skin and no discernible chicken meat. It was not worth the price by a long-shot. Although I liked some of the dishes, there was nothing with the Wow-Factor that would make me return to this restaurant.

    Special thanks to Vincent who explained the intricacies of the dishes and how they Should've been prepared and presented. Please, don't fire me from ChowHound... I had a great time !

    1. Thanks to hyperbowler for organizing!

      I'll add myself to the group who was underwhelmed by Zen Peninsula, and just run through the dishes I liked:

      Kabocha with salted egg yolk: fantastic flavor and texture--I worried these wouldn't be as good when they weren't fresh out of the hopper, but even when slightly cooled the friction of the slightly grainy yolk batter against the chewy squash slices was pleasant

      Scallop in egg white: pretty texture, very delicate as mentioned and probably best to order first, sort of like a glass of champagne before a meal

      BBQ pork with soybeans: nice depth of flavor, some pieces were a little too hard

      Oh and cost wise, this was about $22 per person, so not terribly expensive for a feast, though I'm in agreement that the chicken was way overpriced.

      1. I just want to start by saying: PHOTOS -

        I've enjoyed dim sum at Zen Peninsula in the past, but this was my first visit for dinner. Overall, I would rate it as "fair."

        Some brief notes:

        * My first impression of the outside of the chicken was a flashback to the egg rolls served in our favorite "American Chinese" restaurant in the early 70's. The standard "crispy chicken" treatment would have been more delicious. The base flavor of the rice was unobjectionable, but it could have used some textural contrasts like gingko nuts. Leaving a little more meat inside the skin would have made the dish seem less like a sack of slightly mushy rice and more like a chicken.
        * I didn't find my bites of fish too salty, and there was a nice light smoky sweetness around the rich flesh.
        * The roast pork neck could have been a bit more tender, but the sprinkle of chopped peanuts and (I think) granulated sugar worked reasonably well as seasoning.
        * I did find what seemed to be some dried shrimp fragments at the bottom of the lettuce pot, but there was no discernible shrimp paste flavor.
        * The garlic sauce on the eggplant needed more oomph and less oil.

        Finally, thanks to hyperbowler for the coordination, to VLo for the sake, and to all the attendees for their insights and entertaining stories. We could have talked all night (if they hadn't turned off most of the lights).

        1. Thank you, hyperbowler, for organizing the Zen Peninsula chowdown for October's chicken with sticky rice. The charm of the chowdown is meeting other 'hounds, and we were in good company last night.
          Thank yous to Estelle for guiding us to the Egg White Scallops and her standby Garlic Eggplant in Clay Pot and to Vincent for evaluating the finer points of Chicken w/Sticky Rice and requesting the table's desserts. From the cross table comments, we've gleaned enough to muster other targets in the South Bay for this October search with two weeks remaining on the calendar.

          The Lettuce w/Shrimp Paste is my favorite dish of the table, brightly braised with a delicately balanced sauce; followed by tender duck tongues on the appetizer plate easily played with your tongue to slip that one bone or tendon from its flesh and the marinated chicken gizzards; the egg white scallops, softly steamed to perfection with generous bits of scallop; and then, Kabocha Fries that were rich with salted egg yolks and NOT greasy. The Smoked Sea Bass is good; with crispy edges and a moist center; if you pick for it you can find the translucent meat - no doubt better as a simple stand alone dish with rice, noodles, or greens - it was lost in the melee.

          Zen Peninsula remains a reliable stop after late night SFO arrivals with hunger pangs... for a dish or two. Perhaps not so much for full feasting, although we have been there on the sideline when huge wedding banquets are in full swing.
          I am adding The Kitchen to my late SFO arrivals food search.

          7 Replies
          1. re: Cynsa

            Ahh Cynsa - you have solved the mystery of how the egg whites are so delicate with not a hint of brown. For some reason it had not occurred to me that they were steamed!

            1. re: Cynsa

              Are the egg whites steamed? I'd been told that the curds for this style of dish are formed by cooking in oil.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                What a good question - it's always been amazing to me that they are so delicate, pure white and not rubbery at all.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  A chef from the Peking Duck Restaurant once told me the egg whites were cooked in a very hot wok, and it would be hard to replicate in most homes since most people don't have a professional gas stove in the kitchen.

                  1. re: vincentlo

                    I don't think that the oil is that hot, otherwise the proteins would be tougher.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Are the egg whites in large, soft curds, rather than a solid, gelled mass? If they are curds, they were cooked, probably with a bit of milk, while being stirred into a rather alarming quantity of moderately hot oil. Somehow the oil gets incorporated into the whites, giving them a lovely custardy texture. I love this dish with crabmeat, green onion, and a tiny bit of julienned ham.

                      1. re: pilinut

                        Don't know, I did not attend the dinner in question.

              2. Thanks to hyperbowler for organizing! My favorite dishes of the night were the scallop in egg white, the lettuce in shrimp paste, and the kabocha fries. The scallop in egg white was light and fluffy, and I don't often order dishes like this, so it was a treat. Lettuce in shrimp paste tasted just like a version of the dish I had in Hong Kong (the only other time I've tried it). Unlike others, I did think it tasted like shrimp paste....though most of this had settled to the bottom, so you sort of had to scrape it out. The kabocha fries were very good, with a crispy, salty shell. Similar to the rendition at Hakka in SF, although in a different shape.

                I thought the eggplant was too oily and didn't have enough flavor. Like they forgot to put in half of the spices/ginger/garlic.

                I thought the smoked seabass was kinda dry and boring, and the sweet mayo served with it was not to my liking.

                The appetizers were all pretty good: two pork dishes and a marinated platter (highlight for me was the duck tongue)

                Desserts were fine too, and I particularly liked the mango flavored mochi (though these were probably bought, and not made at the restaurant).

                Overall, a good meal with good company, but I probably won't be rushing back to ZP anytime soon, as there are so many places that are at least this good, if not better, in the Bay Area.

                Thanks to hyperbowler for organizing! And nice to see old hounds and new hounds.