Pacific Rim Shots

Zen 32, Biltmore Plaza, 3160 East Camelback, Phoenix, 954-8700. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

This week's story: A Tale of Two Restaurants.
Both Zen 32 and Kiawe Grill, two recent additions to the Valley dining-out scene, tap into one of the 1990s' hottest menu formulas: Pacific Rim cuisine. Both have kitchen shelves stocked with an arsenal of Asian ingredients. And both have chefs skilled in Eastern cooking techniques.

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Zen 32

3160 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: East Phoenix

But here the comparison breaks down. On most nights, high-energy Zen 32 is filled to bursting with hip, upscale Camelback Corridor dwellers, who sip "sake-ritas" with their sushi. Sleepy Kiawe Grill, on the other hand, is usually filled with a distressing number of empty tables.

You can account for their differing fortunes in three words: location, location, location. Zen 32 occupies a high-profile corner storefront in the Biltmore Plaza, at 32nd Street and Camelback. The Pacific Rim concept has been cagily tuned to appeal to this fashionable, affluent neighborhood. Kiawe Grill, however, operates out of a hard-to-find spot on the fringes of Metrocenter. For the moment, at least, selling west-side neighbors on the latest culinary trend seems to be as daunting a prospect as selling them on earmuffs in July.

Zen 32's designer wants to make you forget you're only a few doors down from a Safeway store. The noise alone should make you forget--this place has all the tranquil serenity of an aircraft-carrier deck. The bar, dining area and sushi counter occupy three parallel segments, keeping the activities separate. Clever rice-paper pods cover the lights. The rest rooms are identified by a "W" and an "M," projected by light on the doors. The staff is amusingly outfitted like extras in a Bruce Lee movie: guys in Chinese jackets, gals in long, tight, slinky dresses. I can almost forgive putting televisions in the bar. But why does management have to put them in every corner of the room?

The kitchen doesn't take many chances with the food. The risk-averse proprietor (who also operates the Blue Burrito Grille) seems to have taken his culinary cues from the wildly successful P.F. Chang's.

Chang's pseudo-Chinese fare is finely tuned not to upset delicate American palates and sensibilities. Similarly, nothing at Zen 32 should disturb even the most chopstick-phobic diner. Looking for signs of cutting-edge culinary creativity at Zen 32 is about as productive as searching for snow on Squaw Peak. You want a fork for your sushi? No problem. Unable to achieve Zenlike contentment without counting calories? There's a steamed-vegetable dish. Panting for a rich dessert? Rest assured, those traditional Oriental treats, "chocolate Zen triangles" and "Mandarin chocolate cheesecake," are on the menu.

Tame as it is, Zen 32's fare is generally well-crafted. Sushi fans won't have any complaints. Among the highlights are toro, silky marbled tuna belly; the rainbow roll, fashioned with shrimp, salmon, tuna and yellowtail; the Alaskan roll, featuring grilled salmon; and an outstanding spicy scallop hand roll, stuffed with meltingly moist scallops. The only disappointment was the eel cucumber roll--too heavy on the cucumber, too light on the eel.

If sushi doesn't turn you on, Zen 32 offers other pre-entree options. Spring rolls are the least intriguing. Chicken endive is the most interesting: ground, seasoned chicken teamed with endive leaves. The idea is to scoop the chicken into an endive leaf, dip into the hoisin sauce and munch. I'd order this again, especially if I could convince the chef not to use a shovel when he adds salt. But once is enough for the tempura. It falls short on the batter, which lacks the light, lacy touch that characterizes the best models.

The main-dish selections are a lot more conservative than I would have expected in such a trendy place. Teriyaki chicken? Noodles with stir-fried vegetables? At least there were no combination plates.

There is, however, tasty grilled New York steak, thinly sliced and fanned out over rice and veggies. Barbecued pork loin medallions are a tad dry, despite a curry-pineapple marinade. But the apple-ginger relish makes a good moistening agent and provides a flavor boost as well. Asian primavera teams two kinds of noodles, green tea and lemon pepper, with the usual mixed veggies and an innocuous light soy sauce.

At $19, lobster tailspin is the most expensive entree. It's also the best one, a whole meaty tail scooped out of the shell, scented with lemongrass and a ginger beet sauce, then artfully wedged into a mound of terrific wasabi mashed potatoes.

I had a strange experience with my sake steamed whitefish. When I opened the bamboo basket lid, I saw that the fish was virtually raw. Thinking that's how the kitchen intended to prepare it, I dug in. Big mistake--it was inedible.

At that moment, the chef appeared in the dining room, making his rounds. After a few minutes, he reached our table. "How's everything?" he asked. I pointed to the fish: "Is it supposed to be like this?" He inspected the specimen with growing horror, mumbled something about his jet-steaming equipment and whisked it away. He came back five minutes later with a much-improved version. A new fish came wrapped in leeks and surrounded by veggies--sweet potato, squash, carrot and asparagus. An on-the-side bowl of black-bean sauce made for fragrant dipping.

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