I had heard positive comments about one of downtown Schenectady’s newest kids on the 400 block, so college roommate Erica and I decided to investigate Zen Asian Fusion Mojoto Lounge.
Simplicity is often associated with the term Zen. The restaurant’s neutral colors of charcoal and dun, ivory and deep red calmed the large space. Clusters of suspended white paper lanterns and a white feather arrangement on the bar added to the serenity. Three large heads of Buddha softened the entryway and corners of the restaurant.
Background music with a hint of jazz was gentle enough to permit conversation. A gauzy camouflage hid most of the large-screen TV in the center of the square-shaped bar, and unrushed servers added to Zen’s emphasis on the whispered here and now.
Besides the regular bar, there is a seven-seat sushi bar and approximately 15 tables, including high-tops.
The menu is ambitious with no fewer than 10 categories ranging from soups to sushi or sashimi a la carte to traditional Japanese specialties. And desserts, of course.
Zen Asian Fusion Mojoto Lounge
WHERE: 469 State St., Schenectady, 280-0388
WHEN: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday. After Hours lounge 10 p.m. to closing, Wednesday-Sunday
HOW MUCH: $95.38 with tax and tip but without alcohol
MORE INFO: Lunch menu, wheelchair accessible, street parking. All major credit cards accepted.
The handful of soups ($2-$6) ranged from Miso to Seafood, and there were some unusual salads ($5-$6) like Seaweed and Kani (imitation crab and cucumber), and Papaya Mango Citrus.
A slew of appetizers from the more common Edamame (boiled soy bean, $2) to the more exotic Yellowtail Jalapeño ($13) served with yuzu (spicy citrus) sauce are offered.
Assorted teriyaki dishes ($12-$25) are available, along with a similar variety of hibachi selections ($12-$25).
The wide selection of dinner entrees includes several Thai dishes ($12-$19), while about half the menu is devoted to sushi and sashimi ($4 for Tofu to $46 for a Sushi Boat for Two).
A lunch menu includes bento boxes ($8-$11) as well as Two Roll Maki specials ($8).
Erica and I began our feast with Fantastic Roll ($15 for soft-shell crab and avocado inside wrapped with lobster salad in soy paper, served with eel sauce) to share as an appetizer from the signature roll list while we explored the rest of the menu and sipped our beverages.
The eight “fantastic” pieces were delivered by smiling, gentle server Connie and were served with white pickled ginger and bright green wasabi — a pleasing blend of flavors, textures and colors. Both chopsticks and forks were included with every artistically folded napkin.
A lover of sushi, Erica ordered the five-piece appetizer Sushi Sampler ($7). Arranged like a star, Connie identified the chef’s choices for the evening: salmon, tuna, fluke, striped bass, and yellow tail.
Ribs and duck
Unable to choose between two dinner entrees, we agreed to share Zen’s Beef Short Ribs (marinated tender short ribs in fruity tangy flavored sauce for $19), and Zen Crispy Duck (spiced half duck steamed tender then fried and served with mixed vegetables for $18). Each came with miso soup (my choice) or salad (Erica’s), and white or brown rice (we both chose brown).
Both entrees were served bone-in — a plus for both of us. However, that was where the similarity ended. The sauced duck could have been moister, and Erica described the sauce as “undistinguished.”
The short ribs, cut transversely instead of lengthwise, were tender, moist and not at all fatty. We both ignored the mundane brown rice.
Though we confessed to not needing dessert (who ever “needs” dessert?), the menu of eight selections ranging in price from $4-$8 was tempting. Erica chose the Chocolate Fudge Layer Cake ($6), perhaps because we were celebrating her birthday. Wanting something lighter, I opted for the Tropical Coconut Sorbet in a Half Shell ($6).
The cake was rich and fudgy. The sorbet was presented as a work of art, packed into a small coconut shell bowl with graceful branches of what resembled pink and pale green pussy willows piped onto the long dish. The shell was kept in place by a small mound of whipped cream. The effect was beautiful and refreshing.
Erica appreciated being able to order coffee at the end of the meal — not a usual offering at a Japanese/Asian establishment, though neither is chocolate fudge cake or cheesecake.
On our way out, we encountered a group of eight ebullient college-age young people. “Have you dined here before?” I asked. “Oh, yes!” replied a young man enthusiastically, “many times.”
High — and well-deserved — praise from tomorrow’s critics.
Zen refers to a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition. Today, the term is applied to everything from gardening to decorating to food, where it implies the use of fresh whole foods with an emphasis on vegetables. Some have suggested the popularity of the word is based on its ease of rhyming.