So many changes have taken place in the Irish food scene in the last ten years that it is sometimes easy to forget the timeless gems we have dotted around Ireland. Restaurants where generations have celebrated together and have weathered the storm of the recession by innovating and responding to their customer needs.
Last Saturday I took a spin out to a great friend who is a Royal county local, our destination was an Asian stalwart that I had never been to (much to her dismay). Eat Zen has been at the heart of Ashbourne dining for over seventeen years. Set up by Tim Tang way back in 2004 where he had a vision to create a contemporary Asian restaurant with a fine dining feel; fast forward to today and that vision has had to considerably change along the way.
The entrance to Eat Zen is… well a little strange, as it located above a small shopping centre in the village so I was a little underwhelmed on my approach however the old adage “never judge a book” sprung to mind as we stepped inside the impressive space Tang has created.
It is a cavernous room, filed with imported marble, low lighting and contemporary Asian artwork adoring the walls. Not at all what I expected and a long way away from the jaded look so many old school Asian venues can sometimes have.
For a venue that can probably fill 80-90 covers in one sitting it was full to capacity when we arrived, I had booked one of their booths which was next to their rather elaborately private dining space which is secluded but surrounded in glass so you can still take in the people watching on the restaurant floor.
The menu is extensive, there is a sense of all things to all people on first glance but further investigation revealed some very solid options, particularly for veggies or anyone with food allergies. The other surprise at EatZen was the wine list, they have a full bar so beer, cocktails are all on offer but I was intrigued at the emphasis they put on their wines.
There is a decent, good value option by the glass but by the bottle is where it’s at, a well curated list compiled by a friend of Tang, Ben Hawkins, who worked for Berry Brothers importers for many years was a real stand out surprise and worth going back just to sample some of the eclectic range he has put together, complete with region information and tasting notes.
Although I would have loved to splurge on a ’96 Chateau Lynch-Bages Bordeaux I instead resisted temptation and settled for a glass of Alpha Zeta Chardonnay 2016 (€6) exceptional value in any restaurant these days.
Starters are extensive with everything from wonton soup, chicken sung to barbecue spare ribs. I liked the sound of something light to begin with and seated for the Noodle Wrapped Jumbo Prawns (€10) which were cocooned in a delicate light pastry noodle and served with a sweet chilli dipping sauce.
Across the table the local also opted for seafood but this time Prawns in a Malay Salad Sauce (€8), which is a fruity sauce made from soy, plum sauce, garlic and ginger. Presentation was lacking but it made up for it in flavour.
For mains I chose one of my favourite dishes steamed Whole Seabass on the bone (€32) a little pricey but fresh from the boat that day this was a fabulous piece of fish cooked beautifully in a subtle soy, ginger and spring onion dressing and served with rice. Serving the fish with the tail and head is seen as good luck in Asia and very much a Cantonese ritual, however I decided against devouring the head.
Our second main was a cracking dish of Sliced Roast Duck Breast (€19) served with a simple side of fresh mango and some fried rice. Glazed to perfection and crispy in all the right places.
Asian restaurants are not known for doing dessert well so we played it safe and opted for an old school ice cream dessert with some rum and raisin to finish off the evening.
We did give in to a second dessert of Pavlova (€7) to savour our Jasmine tea with which was actual quite good and a little nostalgic to say the least.
Eat Zen was a genuine pleasant surprise it reminded me to not always just seek out the shiny new button but to unearth the timeless classics too. For a fun, great value night out where you leave feeling well fed but not overly full this is where you need to go. Asian hospitality at its finest.
Dinner for two with two glasses of wine and one cocktail came to €105
Building 3b Ashbourne Town Centre
T: 01 8352110