CLOSED: Zen Japanese Restaurant (Toronto)

Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: 2803 Eglinton East
Type of Meal: Dinner

When you pull into the plaza where Zen is located, you may be doubtful that a successful 29-year old restaurant exists.  But, the filled restaurant will likely change your mind.  Seating only about seven tables and a sushi bar area, you have to make reservations on the weekends or prepare to be disappointed.

I went with my cousins and we decided to order a bunch of items to share family style.   To start we had:
  • Green salad (included in dinner combo)  – fresh vegetables topped with a refreshing homemade dressing.  Unlike most Japanese restaurants that use a soy sauce/sesame oil mixture, their dressing is thicker and had a nice citrus note to it.

  • Miso soup (included in dinner combo) – I found was average; for those who find miso soup too salty at other establishments, this would be a good option for you.  For me, I like the saltiness so found the soup a little bland.

  • Seaweed and tofu salad ($4.95) – a generous sized salad that came recommended and unlike anything I’ve tried before.  I liked the seaweed mixed with vegetables and the salty soy sauce/sesame oil sauce.  The tofu itself was a bit bland, you really need to break up the tofu and dip it into the dressing to get some flavour.  I would have liked the tofu to be in smaller pieces and warmed up slightly.  But, it was very beautifully presented.
Seaweed and tofu salad

Next, we had a plethora of items to share amongst the table.  We ordered the set dinner ($35) as it included a variety of items to try.  Overall, I found the dinner didn’t really stand out and live up to the restaurant’s reputation.  If you do come, I would suggest avoiding this special and ordering a-la-carte instead.  The set dinner consisted of:
Agedashi tofu – two cubes of deep fried tofu in a fish broth.  It was a good contrast of crispy silky tofu and soup.  I liked this much better than the miso soup and would suggest this to start.
Tempura shrimp and vegetables – sadly was a little disappointed with the dish.  The batter was a bit thick and didn’t have the light crispy bits I normally enjoy about tempura.

Sushi – came with three pieces of sushi (salmon, tuna and ebi).  The fish was extremely fresh and cut to a perfect thickness.  I normally don’t like raw fish but loved the clean, flavourful taste of the tuna.  We were advised that when possible the restaurant uses wild fish, so perhaps this is what makes the difference.  If you do like raw fish, most diners swear by the chef’s menu .
Steak teriyaki – we ordered the steak medium and found it a bit tough.  Given the steak is thinner, I would suggest cooking to medium to hopefully make it more tender.
Zen teriyaki steak dinner

The a-la-carte menu items we had were much better - our favourite was definitely the spider roll ($13.50).  A generous sized soft-shell crab is wrapped with avocado and fish roe with a thin layer of rice.  Even though there were 6 pieces in the roll, it was so good I’m sure we could have had one each.  I loved the filling to rice ratio of the roll.
Spider roll

The broiled miso black cod ($7.95), an appetizer, was surprisingly affordable and a fair size.  Like the soup, the miso wasn’t as strong so the light fish flavour still shone through.  I only wish the skin was broiled a longer or could be seared so that it would be crispier; I found it a little chewy.
Broiled miso black cod

To end we tried two desserts:
  • Black sesame ice cream (included in dinner combo) – a great alternative to green tea ice cream.  It’s richer and very flavourful.

  • Mitsumame ($4.95?) – a seaweed jelly with cocktail fruits and a few red beans.  We were skeptical at first as to how seaweed would taste sweet.  In the end, you couldn’t really decipher it was seaweed and tasted like any gelatin.  Served with cocktail fruits and its juice, mitsumame is a lighter option for those who may want something sweet but not overly filling.

Overall mark - 8 out of 10

Gastro World's Grading System
  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

Photo Sources:

Special thanks to my cousin who was the photographer of the pictures above!